The 'avoidable' arrest and the issue of race

What the Gates/Crowley incident really says about our willingness to stop and learn something during our 'teachable moments'

If you actually want a more complete and accurate understanding of this column you need to read all the hyperlinks in this article, but to just frame things going in:

“It also appears that many people choose to ignore or minimize empirical evidence that refutes their beliefs.”
— Renee Loth, Boston Globe, 2010

“Mindfulness the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations.”
— Cara Feinberg, Harvard Magazine, Sep/Oct 2010

The Gates/Crowley Incident
The President of the United States, the United States Attorney General, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree are just four of many people who claim that the last summer’s arrest of Professor Gates by Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Sergeant James Crowley should serve as a “teachable moment” concerning race relations in America.

However, it appears that the primary lesson of this “teachable moment” may be that many law enforcement “experts,” political pundits, and members of the media ignore or minimize empirical evidence that refutes their beliefs.

In one of the most ironically titled reports I’ve ever read, Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities: Final Report of The Cambridge Review Committee, the “experts ignore the issue of race. These “experts,” were provided with a golden opportunity to address the issue of race in America surrounding an incident that received international attention and rather than act upon it, they chose to sweep the issue of race under the rug.

So much for teachable moments!

I first suspected that the Gates/Crowley incident was going to be simply another missed opportunity to discuss the issue of race in America and become another in a long line of missed opportunities when I read that the review committee had missed the opportunity to include Asian Americans on the committee.

Far too often when the issue of race in America is explored, it is in the context of a “Black and White America.” It is almost as if those who do the exploring have never visited the United States Census website. Only a cursory visit reveals that the issue of race in America is far more complex and multifaceted than Black and White!

First and foremost a simple yet at the same time a complex question the media needs to be answered is why the media shuns — as well it should — referring to Asian Americans as “Yellow,” yet the media continues to feel comfortable referencing “Black” and “White” when they report incidents.

On page 53 of the September-October 2010 issue, Harvard Magazine, is an understated and unremarkable column, “Putting the Arrest to Rest.” It is difficult if not impossible for me to understand how Harvard Magazine could note that:

...and notably [the Cambridge Review Committee report] did not emphasize the racial elements of the story that figured so prominently in reporting and commentary at the time. For details, see

How is it possible that Harvard Magazine can note the importance of discussing the issue of race in America and when that issue sits on its very doorstep, Harvard Magazine joins most everyone else in wanting to “put the arrest to rest?”

The ‘Avoidable’ Arrest
In a Boston Globe opinion column, The 'avoidable' arrest, the author, Joan Vennochi, correctly notes that, “What happened between Gates and Crowley varies, according to who tells the story.”

Equally important, I believe, is this: What happened between Gates and Crowley varies according to who hears the story. Most people will continue to make their decisions about the Gates/Crowley incident based upon their preconceived beliefs and bias about race in America.

Vennochi believes the primary lesson to be learned by law enforcement is that rude and obnoxious behavior should not be a reason for an arrest. Vennochi also notes that:

1.) What made this a national Rorschach test was the race of the cranky professor and the cranky cop.
2.) It’s clear from his comments to Crowley, that skin color triggered Gates’ reaction to the police officers. Only Crowley knows what triggered his reaction to Gates. Was it back-talk? Skin color? The combination?
3.) Avoiding the central question does not make it go away. Would the outcome in this case be different if the professor had been white?

Story Tellers
However, Vennochi does not inform her readers that on June 17, 2010 the Boston Globe article, Review finds no links to race, arrests, did answer some of her questions. This independent review reports that it is the context and circumstances surrounding individual incidents that are the most common factor concerning arrests for disorderly conduct, not race.

The above report notes that of the 392 arrests for disorderly conduct from 2004 to 2009, 57 percent were white and 34 percent were black. This percentage almost exactly mirrors the racial composition of the population investigated for disorderly conduct.

Just a cursory review of comments about the Gates/Crowley incident reveals that most people had reached presumptions of guilt before reading all the facts. In an article in the Boston Globe, Ogletree sees progress made, but more work left to do, Professor Ogletree states that:

The person with control and power to make an arrest that day was Sergeant James Crowley, not Professor Gates. It was wrong of Crowley to arrest him.

Apparently Professor Ogletree believes that Sergeant Crowley was absolutely wrong and Professor Gates was absolutely right. Professor Ogletree does not seem to understand the work left to do involve both law enforcement and the African-American community.

I do agree with Professor Ogletree that Sergeant Crowley could have avoided making the arrest. However, to paint Professor Gates as someone without any power to control the event is wrong. All Professor Gates had to do to prevent the arrest was to provide Sergeant Crowley with the same respect that he expected Sergeant Crowley should extend to him.

Cognitive Dissonance
Might this be another teachable moment lost because of cognitive dissonance? Cognitive dissonance is encountered when people choose to ignore facts that dispute their belief system. It is generally accepted that facts that that support your beliefs are readily accepted as facts, while facts that can call into question what you believe, can render you unwilling or unable to accept those facts as actual facts.

How facts backfire, was published in the Globe on the same day as the Vennochi column. It might be another partial explanation of how or why Americans are going to continue missing teachable moments about race similar to the Gates/Crowley incident.

All I ask is that the Cambridge Police Department, Harvard University, Harvard Magazine, and Professor Ogletree do not allow this “teachable moment” to be put to rest. As noted above, investigations reveal that, at least for the Cambridge Police, race was not central to this arrest.

It is time for Harvard University – the leading educational institution in American – and Harvard Magazine – an independent voice concerning Harvard University - to help all Americans understand how or why almost everyone in the African-American community, including at least two Harvard professors, continue to believe that Sergeant Crowley was wrong, Professor Gates was innocent, and that, race was central to his arrest. The dialogue needs to continue and not be put to rest until we have an answer that we all are willing to accept, regardless of race, color creed or national origin.

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