BOSTON - The 911 caller who reported two men possibly breaking into the
home of black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. did not describe their race,
acknowledged they might just be having a hard time with the door and said she
saw two suitcases on the porch.
Cambridge police on Monday released the 911 recording and radio
transmissions from the scene in an effort to show they had nothing to hide, but
the tapes raised new questions about how and why the situation escalated. Read
Given Ms. Whalen's very measured call, why did the situation at Gates' home intensify so quickly? And why, in James Crowley's police report, is Whalen said to be more confident about the race of the subjects and more suspicious than in the 911 call? Was Crowley's handling of the situation, as he described it in his report, consistent with what a reasonable officer would do when faced with a situation where even the reporting witness admits there may not be a break-in at all?
Of course, those who wish to believe that race played no role in this case are caterwauling "See! See! No racism! You people always jump to conclusions!" In comment threads around the Web, folks are holding up these recently-released tapes as evidence that those who claim race played a role in this case are wrong.
Hold on there.
It does seem clear that Lucia Whalen was wrongly vilified, but those of us who questioned her racial bias were not making assumptions without evidence. We were trusting widely-circulated, now-contradictory reports from Crowley, Gates and the media. And we still don't have resolution on what happened between Crowley and Gates. Likely, we'll never know without a doubt how much or how little race played a role in the professor's arrest. We only have what Gates said vs. what Crowley said. Even if the Cambridge Police Department chooses to release tapes of Crowley's transmissions, revealing an audibly agitated Gates, we can't know what happened in those first minutes that the officer approached the intellectual.
Those who think black people are stubbornly determined to find racism in this situation should understand this. Personal experience can be its own evidence. Every human being assesses situations based on facts and logic born of learning and experience. The black community's experience with law enforcement is unique and, yes, often tinged with racism. At least half of the black men I have spoken with--law abiding citizens all--know what it is like to be accosted wrongly by police officers. They know what it is like to "fit the profile." My own brother and his friends were once stopped on an interstate by a phalanx of police, guns drawn, because a woman at a hotel where they were staying thought four, young black men exchanging money couldn't possibly be college students settling up a hotel bill after a weekend getaway, but instead must have been conducting a drug deal. Imagine that. Imagine how quickly that situation could have gone wrong. Think of living with the prospect of that happening every day. Black men, no matter how educated and prosperous, do live with that.
And so, most black people, other people of color and anti-racist allies legitimately view the Gates controversy with suspicion. In most cases, it is a suspicion borne of real-life experience. It is legitimate. And the recently-released Gates 911 tape doesn't change a thing.