Racism and Implicit Bias in Cambridge

If you wish to gaze upon the depth and breadth of America’s racial divide–particularly the canyon-like gulf between white folks and black folks–you need look no further than the recent incident involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cambridge police officer James Crowley, and now, President Obama who weighed in on the matter a few nights ago, when asked for his reaction to Gates’s arrest on charges (since dismissed) of disorderly conduct. In this case, as with so many other news stories that have touched on race–the O.J. Simpson trial and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as just two of the more obvious examples–whites and blacks, generally speaking, and with obvious exceptions on both sides, see the story and the racial component of the story in fundamentally different (often diametrically opposed) ways.

To hear most white folks tell it, Gates was to blame. Yes, he was only trying to enter his own home when a white woman saw him (as well as his driver), assumed they were burglars and then convinced another woman to call the cops on her behalf. And yes, he produced identification for the officer when asked, indicating that he was indeed the resident of the house to which the officer had come to investigate the initial call. But because he became belligerent to Sgt. Crowley, and because he unfairly called Crowley a racist, he is guilty of escalating the situation, and thus, is the bad guy in the scenario. Meanwhile Crowley, according to the dominant white narrative, spread by media far and wide, is a wonderful and thoughtful cop, who is hardly a racist–after all he teaches a diversity training class and once gave mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation to a dying black athlete–and who was inappropriately smeared: first by Gates who accused the officer of asking him for proof of residency only because he was black, and then by Obama, who said the police had acted “stupidly” in arresting the esteemed professor in his own home.

Such a perception on the part of whites makes sense, given the white racial frame, as sociologist Joe Feagin calls it, through which most whites view these matters. That frame says, among other things, that as long as you are respectful to police, nothing bad will happen to you (thus, if something bad does happen to you it was likely your own fault), and secondly, that there can be no racism involved in an incident unless the person being accused of such a thing clearly acted with bigoted and prejudicial intent. In this case, since Gates mouthed off and Crowley is, from all accounts, hardly a bigot, the case is closed so far as the dominant white narrative is concerned. Continue reading…

Prof. Gates’ Arrest, Cambridge Police and Racism


(image from here)

News about the arrest of Harvard Professor Gates seems to be flowing out of the news-machine-spigot at full force these days.   At least part of the story seems to be shifting toward Crowley, the Cambridge cop who was centrally involved in Gates’ arrest.  Here, I’ll go through a few of the main links to various parts of the story, and then – as we do here – draw on some social science research to see if that can illuminate what’s going on here.

Several people are defending Crowley.  Some of these defenders are not surprising, such as this blogger who sees Crowley – a racial profiling expert for the Cambridge police – as being treated unfairly because he is white. Other Crowley defenders are somewhat more surprising, such as Dr. Boyce Watkins, an African American professor at Syracuse University and often ardent critic of the racial status quo, who writes:

After my battles with Bill O’Reilly made me the most hated professor on the Syracuse University campus last year, I always thought I was the radical guy in the room. But in this case, I must encourage temperance and fairness. Whether it has killed slaves in the past or destroyed careers in the present, the mob mentality has never been good for America.

From a centrist perspective, the Christian Science Monitor has a piece called, “Gates Arrest: Racial Profiling or ‘Tempest in a Teapot,'” and the staid CSM comes down decidedly on the ‘tempest in a teapot’ side of this.  The CSM emphasizes “bad behavior on both sides,” as in this quote from a representative of the Cambridge Police:

“It wasn’t Professor Gates’s best moment, and it was not the Cambridge Police Department’s best moment.”

Then, the CSM includes this line which is the heart of their argument in this article:

Law enforcement analysts are inclined to agree, suggesting that the incident may have been only a “tempest in a teapot.”

Unfortunately, the evidence from the ‘law enforcement analysts’ – one crim professor a radio talk show how and a legal blogger – is pretty thin.   The evidence they glean from quote by the crim professor tend to be critical of Crowley’s actions, as in:

“The best motto for a police officer is that sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” says George Kirkham, a former police officer and now a professor of criminology at Florida State University. “People wind up venting, and you have to let them vent.” “We are a country founded on Jeffersonian ideals, and people don’t like government in their lives,” says Professor Kirkham. “[Police] need to be aware of that.”

So, here, Kirkham is basically saying that Crowley should not have arrested Gates no matter how “tumultuous” his behavior.  The key phrase here is the use of “Jeffersonian ideals.”   Now, I’m assuming the ideals to which Kirkham is referring here are the ones about government not interfering in people’s lives, and not the ones that Jefferson wrotes about in Notes on the State of Virginia in which he argued for the inherent inferiority of blacks, including (presumably) Sally Hemmings, the woman he enslaved, raped, and her children by Jefferson.   Still, I think Kirkham is right here, it would be a good idea to keep these latter Jeffersonian values in mind when dealing with anyone and particularly with African Americans.  My point here is that even the *expert* in this case is so completely steeped in the white racial frame that he doesn’t even realize the multiple connotations of what he’s saying to this CSM reporter. And, for their part, the CSM reporters and editors never step outside the white racial frame to evaluate this case even though this is supposedly an “analysis” piece.

A better source for “law enforcement analyst” might be Lowry Heussler, who has worked on police-misconduct cases in Massachusetts, the state where the Gates arrest happened.   In a post for the blog The Reality-Based Community, Heussler provides a meticulous analysis of Crowley’s actions based on Crowley’s own words (the report he wrote about the arrest):

Read Crowley’s report and stop on page two when he admits seeing Gates’s Harvard photo ID. I don’t care what Gates had said to him up until then, Crowley was obligated to leave. He had identified Gates. Any further investigation of Gates’ right to be present in the house could have been done elsewhere. His decision to call HUPD seems disproportionate, but we could give him points for thoroughness if he had made that call from his car while keeping an eye on the house. Had a citizen refused to leave Gates’ home after being told to, the cops could have made an arrest for trespass.

Heussler goes on from there, offering a thoroughly devastating critique of Crowley’s actions as police – apart from the racial context – and based on Crowley’s on words.   Basically, what he finds is that Crowley gets pissed off that Gates has accused him of racism, then works to escalate the situation by “inviting” Gates out onto the porch where he is arrested.

Now, to the social science.  Henry Ferrell at Crooked Timber has a nice post called “Discretion and Arrest Power,” in which he discusses the relevance of Peter Moskos’ book, Cop in the Hood. Moskos, a sociologist and a CUNY professor at John Jay College, spent a year as a beat officer in Baltimore. In his book, Moskos discusses the “zone of discretion” that cops have and the ways that they try to expand their authority beyond that which they are legally authorized to do (Moskos, p. 117-118). In Moskos’ account of being Baltimore police officer (as Farrell recounts it) he both (a) uses a verbal invitation to induce the targeted individual to leave the building, and (b) then uses the attention of bystanders to generate a charge of disorderly conduct.

Crowley, for his part, maintains that he is “not a racist” and refuses to apologize.  And, I think it’s quite possible that Crowley did not have any intention to racially discriminate against anyone when he showed up at the house on Ware Street responding to a call.    I do, however, think that the confluence of events and factors shaped his response to the situation so that it played out in ways that are consistent with centuries of racial discrimination in this country.   First, there’s the white racial frame that shaped Crowley’s view of what was happening and what kind of a “danger” Professor Gates posed.  Second, there’s the “cop in the hood” mentality in which police are often forced to use their discretion to decide what to do in a situation that may seem unclear.  Third, there is Crowley’s “reputation” as a “racial profiling expert” and Gates charge of “racism.”  This, according to one experts’ speculation, pissed off Crowley and that’s where the escalation occurred.  Now, Crowley – and his defenders – seem entrenched in the effort to shore up Crowley’s “racial innocence” and thus redeem him as a ‘good’ (read: not racist) white person.

This will, I predict, continue to be a huge news story.   And, much of the coverage will be focused on Crowley and his supposed “racial innocence.”   I find this a disappointing focus on this story because by making it a story about Crowley, it completely individualizes – and ultimately trivializes – the problem here. I hope that others – possibly Professor Gates leading the way – will use this incident to rerfocus our attention on efforts to change the racial inequality at the heart of our criminal justice system, and indeed, at the heart of our society.

President Obama on the Arrest of Prof. Gates

Last night, President Barack Obama answered a question about the arrest of Professor Gates during a press conference about health care. The President said that police acted “stupidly” and despite racial progress blacks and Hispanics are still singled out unfairly for arrest. Here’s the short clip (2:10) in case you missed it:

While it’s hard to imagine any of the previous presidents speaking out in this way about a “police matter,” the fact that President Obama would speak out should not, in fact, be that surprising. For Obama, racial profiling was a major issue for him as legislator in Illinois. He was the chief sponsor of a bill, which became law, that requires police to record the race, age and gender of all drivers they stop for traffic violations and for those records to be analyzed for evidence of racial profiling.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell provides an excellent analysis in The Nation both about Gates’ place among black intellectuals in the U.S. prior to this and about the significance of Gates’ arrest for what she calls “the post-racial project.”

Yet, for all this outrage (I believe I referred to it as a ‘tsunami of outrage’ originally, and it is certainly turning into that), James Crowley, the cop who arrested Gates, says he won’t apologize. And, lots of other white folks are lining up to defend him (starting with comment #8 at that link). This could get even more interesting.