The Harvard professor teaches Victimology 101
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It's this simple: Sometimes a black American faces conflict because he's standing up to racism. Sometimes a black American faces conflict because he's acting like a jerk.
Temporary jerkdom is every American's right, but if you cop that attitude with a cop, you can expect some negative consequences, no matter what color you are or where you teach.
It's that simple, or it would be, if we lived in a post-racial America. Sadly, though, old narratives keep getting in the way of our collective dream.
Sgt. Leon Lashley is a black officer who saw his white colleague, Sgt. James Crowley, arrest African-American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for disorderly conduct on July 16. The black officer heard the black civilian's rant and has said repeatedly that he supports his white colleague's actions "100 percent."
But before the nation heard the officers' accounts of what happened that day, President Barack Obama had already weighed in. While admitting he didn't know all the facts, Mr. Obama raised the specter of racial profiling and said the Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" in arresting Mr. Gates.
It's a narrative that doesn't fit the facts. It's also not very different from the narrative Mr. Gates himself was shouting when he was arrested.
A neighbor called police to report a possible break-in when she saw "two black males with backpacks" on a nearby porch, one of them trying to force open the front door. When Sgt. Crowley arrived, he asked Mr. Gates, who was inside the foyer of the house, to provide identification to prove he belonged in the house. The enraged Mr. Gates began accusing Sgt. Crowley of being a racist, an exchange broadcast at least in part, if not fully, over the officer's open police radio and witnessed by a colleague, Officer Carlos Figueroa.
Sgt. Lashley and another officer arrived within minutes and remained outside, interviewing the woman who'd called 911. When Mr. Gates and the other officers came outside, "It was getting out of control," Sgt. Lashley told CNN.
Sgt. Crowley said, "There was a lot of yelling. There were references to my mother -- something you wouldn't expect from anybody who ... should be grateful that you are there, investigating a crime in progress, let alone a Harvard University professor."
This chain of events comes from multiple observers of various races, but Mr. Gates' interpretation was different. Sgt. Lashley heard him yell, "This is how a black man in America is treated, and I'm being placed under arrest in my own home because a white woman called the police."
Like Mr. Gates, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson considered the event racial profiling. That's their story and they're sticking with it -- because racial victimization is not just their life narrative, it's their livelihood.
Cynics expect that stance from professional agitators, but when healing figures like Mr. Gates and Mr. Obama blame police racism instead of considering the possibility that a black individual messed up, then we've still got a long way to go.
Any of us can grow up experiencing abuse for a multitude of reasons -- skin color, religious practice, disability, a parent's alcoholism -- and the pain from a bigoted or angry blow is lasting and real. But if we blame every setback and conflict in life on the other person -- without examining our own words and deeds -- then we remain less mature people than we might have become. The "I'm the victim" narrative undermines our growth and happiness.
That principle is tragically multiplied in the destructiveness of America's racial past. To atone for this history and to avoid committing new wrongs, whites have had to examine and cleanse racism from their mindsets for many years now.
Indeed, like most urban departments, the Cambridge police department is integrated and aggressively trained on racial sensitivity -- with the maligned Sgt. Crowley as an instructor. Here, a multiracial police force has moved far beyond the sad, old story, but a prominent black scholar and his defenders aren't yet ready for a new narrative.
Sgt. Lashley confirmed as much when he speculated, "Would it have been different had I shown up first? Probably, ... because of the black man to black man [dynamic]."
America's story of race and redemption -- if redemption is to be complete -- must be a joint enterprise. A rueful Mr. Obama hoped that this episode would become a "teachable moment." It can, if everyone -- especially a professor -- is willing to learn.
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 28, 2009) This column as originally published July 27, 2009 misstated a detail about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. He was inside his house when the Cambridge police officer arrived, not in the process of forcing open the front door.
First Published July 27, 2009 12:00 am