David Wright: The Profiling of Sgt. Crowley





[David Wright is an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author, with David Zoby, of Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers (Scribner, 2001.)]

It's 1999, summer, and night has just fallen. I'm a faculty fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, and another young black faculty member, Arnold, and I are walking down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, near the campus. A passing police car veers abruptly across the avenue to cut off our path. The officer orders us against the hood of his car and frisks and cuffs us. No explanation, despite our repeated requests for one, despite identifying ourselves as Harvard faculty members. The officer doesn't want identification; he doesn't even ask for it.

Instead, Arnold and I are made to stand in the blue strobe of the patrol-car lights as three or four more cars roll up, passers-by staring. Finally, a police car arrives with a white woman in the back seat. She scrutinizes Arnold and me. After an interminable beat, she shakes her head "no," saying something to the officer behind the wheel. Her car pulls away and, in quick order, so do the others.

The officer who stopped us unlocks the cuffs. He explains that a house has been broken into in the adjoining neighborhood. "And you're stopping all black men on the street!?" Arnold or I or both of us said.

He doesn't reply. He doesn't apologize.

In that instance, and in others before and since, I used, or attempted to use, my class privilege to extricate myself from, or at least lessen the potential threat of, an encounter with the police. That night, Arnold and I had been joking and laughing (maybe even shucking and jiving) before being stopped. Yet though we'd done nothing wrong, I immediately switched to a mainstream style of speaking when addressing the officer, and called attention to my professional status. It was reflexive. I'd been in situations like that since I was a kid, and had responded at times in an accommodating manner; at others, belligerently, and had come to understand that the best way, however demeaning, is accommodation.

So when I read the details of the confrontation between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James M. Crowley of the Cambridge police, I recognized the situation.

Gates acknowledges having brought up race. Gates, in an interview with his daughter for the online magazine The Root, recalled asking Crowley, "Is this how you treat a black man in America?" (The official police report says that Gates stated it as accusation, pugnaciously, repeatedly, and loudly.) The subtext of Gates's words, even calmly articulated, is clear. Gates was accusing Crowley of behaving in a racist manner; by extension, Gates was calling Crowley a racist, to his face, in front of other officers, at least one of whom is black.

Those are fighting words. And Gates knows it.

The brouhaha surrounding the July 16 arrest strikes me most for the reasonable voices that have lost all sense of reason in response. From President Obama to the countless others who have weighed in, all focus has been, in one way or another, on the victimization of Gates. Professor Gates has become a stand-in for the "average black man," subjected to humiliation and abuse at the hands of a racist police force. But Gates, while obviously black, is not a stand-in for the many African-Americans, men and women, who daily are victims of profiling and worse.

Was Gates profiled? Richard Thompson Ford makes a compelling argument on Slate that Gates was not. Sgt. Crowley was responding to a potential crime in progress; he was performing his duty, by all indications, in a professional manner.

The more interesting question, it seems to me, is, was Crowley himself profiled—as a racist police officer? The answer is, unequivocally, yes—not only by Gates but by the rest of us, in newspapers and magazines, online and on TV, even by the White House....

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