[The mistaken assumption that we have achieved so much racial progress] that we should discontinue [legal] efforts born of the reactions to slavery and Jim Crow suggests that those who believe that we are in a post-racial environment are [either] naïve […] or racially insensitive – Charles Ogletree, Director, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, and Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

In July of 2009, national media broadcasted a disturbing picture of renowned Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American, handcuffed and straddled by two burly white policemen. Gates—then 58 years-old—is a man of diminutive stature who walks with a cane. Police had responded to a report of a break-in at Gates’ home: Gates had forced his way into his own house after locking himself out. Gates was subsequently arrested after allegedly raising his voice at Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department, in Massachusetts. President Obama later stated that Cambridge Police had “acted stupidly” by arresting Gates who had identified himself to Crowley. However, Obama’s censure aired on national television and irked the Cambridge Police who remonstrated against the President. After the national uproar that ensued about race, President Obama invited the disputants for beers at the White House.

The controversial arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. a popular Harvard professor and TV personality drew national consternation.

The climax of the controversial arrest was a meeting on July 30, 2009, of two black men and two white men sitting together to have beers on the Rose Garden patio of the White House (Huffington Post). It comprised of the President and Vice President, Gates and Crowley. The meeting, called the “beer summit,” symbolized diversity, and yet stalemate—in race relations.

Obama described the beer summit as a teachable moment—this is true, but perhaps it teaches a different lesson from the one he had in mind. An opportunity to prosecute police abuse was lost, once the Gates-Crowley imbroglio became mischaracterized, as Obama being pro-racial or showing favoritism based on race, as he seemed to favor his black elite friend (never mind that Obama is half-white). Soon, what had seemed a clear case of an abuse of police power was imbued with political significance of a national scope.

The first black President, who had gained overwhelming support from predominantly white Cambridge in the 2008 elections, appeared to jeopardize his political goodwill with the Massachusetts Police Unions—backed by blue-collar whites. The president’s comment was misconstrued; conservative talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh, called Obama racist for taking sides, and attacking whites (YouTube). Obama became a scapegoat and Crowley was recast as the victim of elite blacks.As a result of the backlash against Obama’s seemingly impulsive comment, the local scrutiny of Crowley’s actions was quashed and the bad behavior of a (possibly) rogue cop went unaddressed.

It seems the normally disciplined Obama, was uncharacteristically impulsive when he said Cambridge police “acted stupidly,” and seemed to insinuate the officers were racially insensitive, when he drew parallels to Chicago’s history of racial profiling, or disproportionate arrests of minorities based on prejudice. This essay will explore what may have prompted Obama’s seemingly impulsive comments about the Cambridge Police; why there was a backlash to Obama’s comments; the legal implications and other ramifications of the Gates-Crowley incident. Two views are also examined: that whites are in denial about racism; alternatively, that blacks exaggerate racism.

To legal scholars, such as Obama a former Constitutional Law Professor, the arrest represented an illegal search and seizure in violation of the U.S. law. We cannot assume that Obama’s comment reflects bias because he and Gates are both black. At the 2004 Convention Obama said, “If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties” (Obama, 2004). Even conservative Fox News judicial analyst, Judge Andrew Napolitano said, “Sergeant Crowley acted improperly by arresting Henry Louis Gates” (“Studio B” 27 July 2009). Also supporting the view that the arrest was improper, Roger Clark, former Lieutenant of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office stated, “When we subject our citizens to arrest because they express their opinions, we are in trouble” (ABC 7 News, 22 July 2009).

Additionally, Obama is a skilled rhetorician, who may have been using an implicature to “insinuate [his] intent indirectly rather than stating it as a bald proposition” (Pinker). According to Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Steven Pinker, “language serves […] to convey a proposition […] and to negotiate and maintain a relationship” (Pinker et al, 835). In his initial comments about the Gates arrest, Obama uses both direct and indirect speech. Pinker notes that “logicians [use direct speech in an efficient way to generate] common knowledge [which] can be ascertained perceptually, by observing that [evidence] is perceptible or broadcasted in public” (Pinker, 833). Thus, Obama used “direct speech” to acknowledge the “indisputable evidence” of disproportionate arrests of blacks.

However, Obama uses “indirect speech,” which is “vulnerable to being misunderstood, and seemingly unnecessary” when he said he did not know “what role race played” in the arrest (Pinker). Obama may have been trying to fulfill the expectations of many blacks that the first black President would create an arena for addressing pervasive racial disparities in the criminal justice system, by citing racial profiling. However, for many, Obama’s comment had violated the “taboo of discussions on race.” Consequently, Alan McDonald, lawyer for Cambridge Police expostulated, “This […] police department [is] dedicated to nondiscrimination. It was inappropriate [for the President] to use the situation to implicate the history of racism in America” (ABC News).

However, if the arrest instantiated an abuse of police power, then what precipitated a backlash to Obama’s comments? Discussions on race are widely considered a tabooed topic (Tetlock). Although many Americans are outraged by racial discrimination (evidenced by anti-discrimination laws), mainstream Americans strategically avoid dialogues on race; one could even argue that the topic is “taboo.”

Psychologist Philip Tetlock in his paper “Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates, and Heretical Counterfactuals,” has argued that the mentality of taboo—the belief that certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think them—is ingrained into our moral sense (Tetlock). Steven Pinker, expounding on Tetlock’s ideas, rationalizes the psychology of taboo as follows:

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley met in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 30, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“In maintaining our most precious relationships, it is not enough to say and do the right thing. [T]o show that our heart is in the right place […] we don’t weigh the costs and benefits of selling out those who trust us. Thus, […] the appropriate response [to actions that compromise our cherished beliefs and loyalties] is not to think it over […but] to refuse to consider even the possibility. Anything less emphatic would betray the awful truth that you don’t understand what it means to be a genuine parent or spouse or citizen [or colleague]” (Pinker, 4).

Thus, perhaps race remains a taboo subject partly because, we understand that people we know, and who are close to us may have demonstrated racial discrimination, at some point, but we do not want to consider the possibility. Obama acknowledged in his non-censorious “2008 Race Speech” that even his white grandmother whom he cherished, had sometimes uttered racist remarks that made him cringe (Huffington Post).

The psychology of taboo explains why “genuine” citizens did not focus on the negative facts of race relations in America, but instead focused on the positive redeeming counterpoints. Therefore, Americans did not focus on the realities of discrimination against blacks but celebrated the cathartic election of a black President that they hoped manifested a post-racial America (Ogletree).

Conservatives, like Limbaugh have argued that a combination of white guilt and the desire for post-racialism, which manifests the absence of racism, are elements that inspired Obama’s election (YouTube). However, instead of demonstrating a pro-social behavior that promoted cooperation and ended the racial divide, Obama seemed to be acting pro-racial by his comments that favored Gates, a black man, like himself.

While it may be tempting to suggest that white Americans are completely in denial about racial discrimination, there is evidence that challenges this assumption. Tetlock conducted an experiment that used racially discriminatory insurance policies to verify white attitudes about prejudice against blacks. Tetlock’s “Forbidden Base Rates” experiment showed evidence “consistent with the symbolic anti-racism hypothesis [of racial egalitarianism among at least] white liberals” who were morally outraged when racism against blacks could be proved (Tetlock). White liberals demanded a moral cleansing to remedy the violation with the “overriding concern [to ensure] that a group that had historically suffered from discriminatory practices (and arguably may still be […] suffering) would not, once again, be victimized” (Tetlock, et al).

Thus, according to Tetlock, white liberals were not only outraged when there was evidence that blacks had been victims of racial discrimination, but also required a remedy. However, the legal process that may have proven and remedied racial profiling in liberal Cambridge, was circumvented after Obama weighed in.  Thus, liberal whites such as Congressman Barney Frank, of Massachusetts, who on the basis of the information disseminated in the media called the arrest “outrageous”, may have been prevented from remedying the situation because the investigation was discontinued (Politico).

Both black and white Americans have expectations that the first black President will help bridge the racial divide. Many have defined the materialization of these expectations as starting with a national dialogue on race (Ogletree). However, Obama’s election seems to represent a loss of power to the psyche of many fringe elements who feel a growing insecurity because of the changes and increasing diversity that Obama represents. Reflecting on the inflammatory sociopolitical environment that has prevailed since Obama’s election, former President Bill Clinton, observed that reactions to Obama’s Presidency reflected polarized views: of optimistic Americans who welcomed the diversity Obama represented, and that of Americans who resisted the diversity (CNN. 16 April 2010). Supporting Clinton’s view, Race Relations Scholar, Gregory Rodriguez, notes, “[with the] election of Obama […] we are likely to see the rise of a more defensive, aggrieved sense of white victimhood that strains the social contract and undermines collectively shared notions of the common good […] with whites acting more […] like an aggrieved minority” (TIME, 22 March 2010).

Thus, the need to stem the rancor from a disaffected white majority, many of whom Obama owed his political gains to, may help explain Obama’s beer summit—which provided a photo-opportunity of a harmonious multiracial group. In the photograph, Obama now seemed to be displaying an affinity for blue-collar whites, by drinking a Bud Light, and leveraging Joe Biden’s blue-collar roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Obama had found an expedient solution to the problem his comments had exacerbated: Crowley, the villain, was recast as a “drinking buddy” of the President.

While it is hard to decipher Crowley’s intentions, the impact of his actions seems clear. Although the evidence of racial profiling may suggest racism among some cops, comedian Bill Maher’s commentary with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is incisive: Perhaps the cop was not racist, but he acted stupidly and abused his discretion by arresting a harmless “fifty-eight year-old crippled man” in his own home after Crowley had established that there was no break-in and Gates had presented his identification proving who he was. Maher asked, “What was the threat? Couldn’t Crowley just walk away?”

Perhaps Crowley injudiciously failed to walk away partly because of the uncritical attitude of his colleagues at the scene. His colleagues did not seem to question his judgment or provide an alternative resolution that would have precluded the unwarranted arrest. When Blitzer informed Maher that a black cop, present at the arrest, supported Crowley’s actions, Maher responded, “policemen as a group stick together and that’s the wrong attitude” (CNN). This uncritical group attitude is explained by Pinker as the “psychology of taboo” which serves as “[a] membership badge” in coalitions (Pinker, 4). Accordingly: “believ[ing] something with a perfect faith […] is a sign of fidelity to the group”.

In this case the belief that cops always stick together, even when it should be clear that their actions are unreasonable, seemed to be the slogan of the Cambridge Police. This may explain the groupthink (unchallenged poor-quality decision-making within defined organizational settings) that the arresting officers manifested at the scene.

New York City Police Captain Edward Mamet, who supported the arrest by Crowley, indicated that the arrest was also predicated on police pride: “You have to uphold the law; you can’t just let people act that way and […] walk away. Then they’ll lose […] respect for the police” (ABC 7 News, 22 July 2009). Does Mamet imply that the law prohibits citizens from being disrespectful to policemen?

“The law in Massachusetts […] is clear: people cannot be arrested simply for being disrespectful […] or shouting at the police, even [when] shouting insults at them in public”

On the contrary, George Washington University Law School Professor John Banzhaf calls Gates’ arrest illegal, citing his First Amendment right to make disrespectful statements to a police officer. Banzhaf cited the law in Massachusetts, which applied to the Gates-Crowley imbroglio: “The law in Massachusetts […] is clear: people cannot be arrested simply for being disrespectful […] or shouting at the police, even [when] shouting insults at them in public” (Banzhaf). In agreement, Jon Shane, a former police officer and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, describes Gates actions as “contempt of cop” noting that “you [can] get loud [,] nasty and show scorn [towards] law-enforcement officer[s], but a police officer can’t […] lock you up for disorderly conduct because you were disrespectful toward them” (Rochman).

Significantly, Gates was in his own home when this incident occurred, not in a public place. Thus, Judge Napolitano questioned whether one can be arrested for disorderly conduct while on his own property (The Verdict, Fox News YouTube). Technically, the Cambridge law enforcement’s actions suggest that even the authorities perceived the arrest had no merit, since the charge of disorderly conduct was immediately dropped. In fact, the police department had clearly been embarrassed by the affair and had said it would conduct an investigation—until Obama intervened. Cambridge Police had called the arrest a “regrettable and unfortunate” incident that “should not be viewed as […] demean[ing] the character and reputation of Prof. Gates or [that] of the Cambridge Police” (The Washington Post, 22 July 2009).

I lived in Cambridge at the time and followed the local coverage of the Gates-Crowley incident. What most of the nation was unaware of was that just a few weeks before the arrest, the Cambridge Police Department had apologized for allegations of racial profiling of black Harvard students. The Cambridge Police stated that it would enhance its diversity training and make officers aware of the diverse community that Harvard had become.

Ironically, Sergeant Crowley was responsible for the Police Department’s diversity training: Yet in a situation in which he could have led by example, his judgment failed. With the Cambridge Police again under fire (this time being projected nationally as racist) its group instinct was not to single out Crowley for censure, but to band together. Cambridge Police had just recently admitted guilt (locally) regarding racial profiling, and was taking steps to remedy the situation. The political atmosphere in Cambridge initially suggested that Crowley would likely be censured—until Obama’s remarks, which united Cambridge Police against a common enemy (Obama) who seemed to asperse their corporate integrity. In another instance of groupthink, Cambridge policemen perceiving their authority was threatened by the insinuation of racism under national scrutiny, banded together to protect their own. However, if Crowley’s actions were racially motivated, then what are the implications?

In his article Racist, former U.S. Department of Justice Attorney, Robert Steinbuch, states, “the label ‘racist’ is a pernicious pejorative and is generally recognized by the law as such. It should not be bandied about frivolously, but, rather, should be reserved for those situations in which actual racial discrimination exists” (Steinbuch, 203). Steinbuch informs us that the charge of racism has legal implications as “the Fourteenth Amendment requires that inquiry be made into racial prejudice” (Steinbuch, 213). Furthermore, “An employer has a duty to investigate a charge that one of its employees has engaged in discriminatory conduct” (205). Additionally, we are informed that if a racist charge is confirmed upon investigation “adverse employment actions for racis[m] are […] virtually demanded” (Steinbuch, 205).

If an investigation had been properly conducted and it was determined that Crowley was racist in his arrest of Gates, Crowley and those who may have aided him would (should) have been fired, according to the law because, it is a violation of duty for an officer to make an arrest based on prejudice. But an investigation was sidetracked because of political expediency.

Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy, identified with Gates’ encounter with the Cambridge Police, acknowledging that upon moving to Cambridge, he immediately introduced himself to the Cambridge Police, informing them of where he lived and worked. His objective was to avert the prospect of being humiliated by any Cambridge policeman who might not like the idea of a black professor in a white neighborhood: This exemplifies the complexity of white non-elite attitude towards erudite black elites, which may help explain the Gates-Crowley impasse.

Manhattan Institute Scholar, John McWhorter, PhD. has identified the intersection of race and social status in an evolving America: where white non-elite (like Crowley) may be disgruntled by the ascendancy of an educated black cadre (The New Republic)

Mug shot of Professor Henry Louis Gates, after his arbitrary arrest at his home.

While the black community empathized with Gates, it was acknowledged that Gates, a member of the elite, was merely experiencing a reality most average African Americans knew—that even law-abiding blacks, like Gates, were subject to the capricious acts of prejudiced rogue cops. Gates was acknowledged as not being the type who gratuitously charged that whites were racists—as Crowley claimed (McWhorter). Therefore, Gates’ claim of victimization did not seem tendentious. Gates noted that his experience made him “keenly aware of how many [blacks] experience abuses in the criminal justice system” (Boston Globe/ABC 7 News 22 July 2009). Unfortunately, unlike Gates, average blacks that may be unjustly victimized by illegal racial profiling may not have connections to high places to preclude their incarceration.

In his 2004 Keynote Address, Barack Obama referred to the “Constitutional freedoms that have made our country the envy of the world” (Obama, 2004). President Obama’s miscalculation and ill-conceived words may have negated some of the dividends of the constitution’s ideals. An opportunity to confront persistent racial profiling of minorities was transmogrified into an arena for political posturing and chicanery.

The fallout from Obama’s comments demonstrates the need for leaders to be tactful and temper their criticism. If the typically prudent President had the opportunity to redo the moment, perhaps when asked for his views on the Gates affair, he would have discreetly recused himself or indicated that while the facts remained unclear and there was an ongoing investigation, the constitution appropriately interpreted by the courts, would help determine the outcome.

However, we cannot rewrite history, we can only learn from it: and be guided by its lessons. The debacle of the Gates affair should inform the gifted President’s future attempts to facilitate a national dialogue on race.