Henry Louis Gates Jr. is doing what one might expect a Harvard academic to do upon uncomfortably encountering a reality that clashes with the one he has invented within his head. He is going to study the incident that became a national news story last month, during which he was arrested at his Cambridge, Mass., home on a disorderly conduct charge, and produce a documentary about it.
Gates told listeners at the Martha’s Vineyard book festival on Sunday that his arrest by a white Cambridge police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, has inspired him to do a documentary on racial profiling, told from the points of view of both police officers and victims of racial profiling. His point, he said, will be to make sure “Americans can understand that you can have two equally valid perceptions of the same event.”
Truly, Gates is an academic. Otherwise, he couldn’t utter such nonsense with a straight face. There are surely instances in which a person is both guilty of a crime and the officer is guilty of racially profiling. An officer might stop a black driver because the driver is black, and it just happens that he got a drug dealer instead of a banker. But that’s not what Gates seems to mean. He seems to be referring to his own arrest and to a broader, underlying sense of mistrust among black Americans and white police officers.
Gates’ use of the term “perceptions” is interesting. He isn’t saying that both sides are equally correct. He is saying, instead, that what occurs inside the mind of each person is equally valid – regardless of what the facts are.
For Gates’ initial perception of Crowley to have been valid, Crowley would have to be a lying, racist officer. That’s what Gates accused him of being at the moment of his arrest and afterwards. Is that an accurate perception? Gates no longer seems to hold that view. Yet he also suggests that his initial perception was valid, even though it was inaccurate.
For that inaccurate perception to be valid, law-abiding minorities must therefore always have a valid – a justifiable, rational and basically correct – perception that any given white police officer is racist. Given the horrible behavior of some white officers, that might seem reasonable. But if such an assumption is reasonable, why would it then be unreasonable for white officers in some cities to assume the opposite?
There are some neighborhoods in America in which black males commit a majority of the crimes. Would Gates say it is a “valid perception” for a white officer to presume that any black male he encounters in those neighborhoods is a criminal?
Or consider the awful incidents in which children are shot and killed by police officers who mistake toy guns for real ones. Is the officer’s perception valid even though the facts are not what he perceived? It is doubtful that Gates would say so.
It is nice to see Gates calling Crowley a “nice guy” and regretting his own behavior. When an audience member at Sunday’s book fair told Gates he had a good sense of humor, Gates replied, “I should have been funnier in the kitchen of my house on July 16.”
That would seem to indicate that, at some level, Gates realizes his own behavior, not his skin color, is what got him arrested. So why go peddling the idea that perceiving people to be what they are not is a valid thing for anyone to do?
Why not instead send the valid message that no one can know what is in the heart or mind of another, and therefore that using someone’s skin color as a proxy for discerning his motives is wrong? Apparently, Gates hasn’t learned the big lesson from the “teachable moment” he helped create last month.