We’ve embarked on a national attempt to find something redeeming in the Gates-Crowley affair – to find the “teachable moment.” Obama’s gracious and politically astute offer to bring the two men together is an example of what Obama does best – creating an uplifting moment of reconciliation, a feel-good moment in which each party can have their say in front of the cameras. But like a family psychodrama, I suspect that most of us know that it won’t stop there, and nothing will really have been resolved. Like a marriage counselor who has seen this particular couple’s arguments many times before, we know on a gut level that some hard truths are going to have to be addressed before the fractious couple that is white and black America can start to move on.
Yet, it’s important to be clear that I’m not applying any kind of moral equivalence to the actions of Professor Gates and Officer Crowley. On the facts as we know them, I believe that the treatment of Professor Gates was unjust and unprofessional. Yes, he was belligerent to a police officer. But that is no crime, and nowhere has Officer Crowley shown that there was any chance of a crime being committed, confirmed by the Cambridge Police Department’s quick decision to drop the charges against Professor Gates. Police officers are trained to be professionals, and a professional would have recognized that an obstreperous sexagenarian who walks with a cane standing in his own house and faced with a phalanx of armed police officers is no threat. And if Office Crowley had paid attention to his diversity training, he would have been prepared for the outrage accompanying perceived acts of racial profiling. The hard truth is that Officer Crowley’s defense that he was just doing his job just doesn’t wash. Having verified the facts, he had every opportunity to apologize to Professor Gates for the misunderstanding and leave. The hard truth that America needs to hear is that incidents of racial profiling and unfair treatment by the police and judiciary are oppressive facts of life for African American men even today.
However, the weary marriage counselor knows that finding a bogey-man and leaving it there isn’t going to get this couple out of their troubles. Rather, it’s likely to dig them in deeper into their self-justification.
The hard truth that Professor Gates needs to hear is that he is the one who handed over his power to Officer Crowley. Letting his agitation get the better of him, Gates lost the ability to shape the outcome of the encounter and set up his own victimization by a poorly trained police officer.
So what should Professor Gates have done instead? He should have invited Officer Crowley inside, sat him down and calmly explained to him, human to human, the personal outrage that he felt at being the target of racial profiling. Moreover, he should have credited to Officer Crowley the possibility that this was an innocent investigation without racial overtones, and that Officer Crowley was doing his job with good intentions. But by angrily demanding respect rather than quietly asserting confidence, Gates placed himself at the mercy of an insecure cop.
And there are more uncomfortable truths that go along with this story. One is that life isn’t fair – those who have clearly been wronged are often the ones who must rise above the situation and be a bigger, better person. Another unpleasant truth is that moments like this will lay bare your internal weaknesses. One cannot help but be struck by the fragility of these two egos, neither of them able to put a brake on the runaway train. So if you don’t want to cast yourself as a victim, you had better get strong internally.
And perhaps the final lesson is the hardest one for all of us. What each of these men brought to this doomed encounter was a deep grievance: grievance for being an acclaimed Harvard scholar yet disrespected as a black man, grievance for being disrespected as an officer, verbally assaulted while serving the public good. As long as we walk around with a sense of grievance – notice the word shares the same root as ‘grief’ – we’re going to make ourselves the victims of those who are stuck in their own ignorance and pig-headedness. The difficult fact is that to let go of grievance requires us to become generous, even when we’re the wronged party. In each and every moment – and particularly in moments like these – we choose who we’re going to be.