The first step toward tolerance is respect and the first step toward respect is knowledge.
— Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Respect is a two-way street.
What happened in Cambridge is regrettable, but it is also a teaching moment.
Harvard Professor Henry Gates prefers to teach an old lesson: that racism is alive and well in America. But teaching that old lesson doesn’t necessarily move us forward.
I can understand the obvious frustration that comes with being arrested for breaking into your own home. That frustration must boil over when you are an old man who has made a career of studying the impact of racism on American society.
But for our society to work, respect has to go both ways. And Mr. Gates can’t just assume that the police officer in question, Mr. Crowley, is a racist simply because he is a cop. After all, Gates was seen by a neighbor breaking into the house, and that neighbor reported it to the police. The cop didn’t know that Gates owned the house. How could he?
Police officers have a very difficult job. They have to try to prevent crime. They have to act as counselors, referees and enforcers. They see human beings at their worst every day. They are trained to be suspicious, because if they let their guard down, they could be dead. Cops get the blame when crime happens, but they don’t get the credit when crime doesn’t.
It’s a thankless job. It doesn’t pay well. It is dangerous. The hours are bad. The stress is high.
One of the few benefits of the job is a certain measure of respect. People respect cops, if for no other reason than that they need them when times are bad.
So when a Harvard professor immediately assumes that a cop is a racist, and makes certain that everyone in the surrounding area knows it, it shows a real lack of respect to the officer and his profession.
It might seem pretty stupid to the president that a cop arrested an old, African-American Harvard professor for breaking into his own house, and on its face, it might seem kind of silly for the police officer to haul Henry Gates downtown for mouthing off to him. But the cop’s actions are not unprecedented.
Plenty of people, of every color and gender, have been thrown into the slammer for screaming at the cops. When you disrespect the badge, you can get tossed in the slammer. When you scream at a judge, you get charged with contempt of court. When you scream at the umpire, you get tossed out of the game. When you scream at your boss, you just might get yourself fired. This isn’t stupid. It is the way of the world.
Yes, cops have to show more respect to the African-American community. Yes, they shouldn’t racially profile black people. Yes, they shouldn’t pull black drivers over while they let white drivers off for driving the same speed. Yes, there has been a regrettable history of racial discrimination in this country. These facts are not trivial and should never be conveniently forgotten.
But there is another side to the story, a side that is all too often ignored by leading black intellectuals. And that is the persistent pattern of distrust and complete lack of cooperation between the black community and law enforcement.
It is no secret that predominantly African-American neighborhoods have the worst problems with crime. Every day, in every major city, black kids are killing black kids, property crimes are rampant, gangs run drugs and ruin lives. But cooperation with law enforcement is frowned on. All too often, cops are seen not as a savior, but as the enemy. Hip-hop artists, venerated in the black community, issue stark warnings, set to music, about the evils of being an informer.
Perhaps the most important step to creating safer streets and stopping crime in low-income neighborhoods is better cooperation between law enforcement and neighborhood leaders.
That requires two-way respect. Cops have to understand that not every black man is a potential criminal. But leaders in the African-American community have to understand that not every cop is a racist.
The tragedy in the Cambridge situation is that the cop assumed the Harvard professor was a crook. And the Harvard professor assumed that the cop was a racist.
The president assumed that what the cop did was stupid. But it is stupid to assume the worst about the cops and the best about his friend. It is far better for the president not to engage in speculation or to negatively characterize the motivations of a law enforcement officer who was doing his best to protect his community.
It would be nice (and very helpful) if the president (and Mr. Gates) would just once say something to the black community about the importance of embracing the law enforcement system as a way to combat poverty.
This is a teachable moment. Let us hope our society can learn something new from it.