Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Disorderly Conduct at Harvard: Whalen and Crowley and Gates, Oh My!

July 24th, 2009 by Ajuan Mance

The now-famous photo of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. being arrested for disorderly conduct. Would your conduct be disorderly if police officers were questioning you for attempting to gain entry into your own home?


For my most recent thoughts on this case follow this link : “Vindication for Lucia Whalen, or Why the 911 Call Means Everything and Nothing at All

The debate around Gates arrest — on this blog and others, and throughout the news media — is both frustrating and thought-provoking. Statements like Justin Wilson’s (read his comments here) indicate the discomfort that some white people have around other races and around the general fear of being labeled a racist; but in the end, such statements fail to truly get to the heart of the matter.

The fact is that very few Black people truly hate white people. Indeed, studies have shown that white people in majority Black environments (HBCUs, for example) are treated with much greater kindness and are welcomed much more fully into the community than Black people in majority white environments. Clearly, if a lot of Black people hated white people, then this would not be the case.

I do believe, however, that most Black people fear the possibility of becoming a victim of white racism, especially at the hands of the police. Pretty much every Black man I know (and a lot of Black women, too) have had the experience of being harrassed by police officers for crimes or infractions that they did not commit.

Given this fact, I think it is a credit to Black people that we do not hate all police. But, the fact is that we don’t; and over and over Black inner-city communities have expressed their desire to partner with the police in order to build better, safer, and strong neighborhoods.
In any event, the underlying question in all of this current discussion of whether or not Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was justified in his reaction to the police and whether or not the police were justified in arresting him seems to revolve around whether or not Black people should simply bow our heads, say yessir and no sir and submit humbly to unfair accusations by police officers.

Let me be clear. I do not think police are horrible people. Indeed, I think most cops are trying to do a good job. Police, though, live in the same world that the rest of us inhabit, and that is a world in which it is impossible to absorb at least some of the negative attitudes about race that are so pervasive in our society.

And here is my last and, I think, most important point. Many people bristle at the suggestion that the actions of Officer Crowley (who arrested Gates) and Lucia Whalen (who made the 911 call that led to the arrest) were racist actions.

I chatted about this question with James, a Black on Campus reader, and some of what I am expressing comes out of my conversation with him. Thanks James!

I think that the sticking point in this debate is rooted in our failure to distinguish between racist people and racist acts. Certainly, there are people who acknowledge their racist feelings towards people who are different from them. Such people feel justified and even proud of their racial biases. But I think we often fail to acknowledge that you don’t have to be a self-proclaimed racist to commit racist acts.

Officer Crowley was and is a Barack Obama supporter who teaches classes about racial awareness. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Lucia Whalen was also an Obama supporter, and I am almost sure that she does not consider herself a racist.

And yet it seems foolishly naive to suggest that the fact the Ms. Whalen looked at two well-dressed Black men, one of whom was gray-haired and rather short (and neither of whom had a backpack) and somehow saw them as two big black men with backpacks has nothing to do with racism.

Outside of the context of his Harvard office, the very professorial looking “Skip” Gates looked to her like a dangerous thug.

Does this mean she is a racist? Actually, no, it does not. Does it mean that the racism of our society has partially shaped her perception about Black men who she does not know to be Harvard faculty? Absolutely.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in Academia, African Americans, Current Events, Harvard University, Henry Louis Gates, Higher Education, race

8 Responses

  1. sri

    Wow!! I never thought that this will be such a big news. It went from Gates arrest to Obama apalogy. This has become more interesting than what I thought. So, I collected all the sites or articles (more than 250 sites or articles) related to this hot topic “Cambridge Police Unit Demands Apology from Obama”. If you are interested take a look at news, video coverage, people views and reviews on this topic at the below link.

  2. SjP

    Yes! Yes! Yes! The points you raise here are the points that often go unspoken and misunderstood! You hit that nail on the head with the head of the hammer!

    Finally broke my silence on the Henry Louis Gate Arrest. You can read it here if you are so inclined.

  3. jaks

    Care to re-examine your comments about Whalen? Like our President, you might consider getting some facts before you accuse people of things. Racism is a funny thing, sometimes those defining it have no clue what it means.

    “the very professorial looking “Skip” Gates looked to her like a dangerous thug.”

    “and Lucia Whalen (who made the 911 call that led to the arrest) were racist actions.”

  4. Ajuan Mance

    One’s response to the Gates-Crowley incident is not an indication that one does or does not understand the meaning of racism. The reason that so many people of African descent reacted so strongly to this encounter (including Gates himself) is because so many Black people have been accused of and even been convicted of crimes and misdemeanors that they did not commit. Because he is a nationally and internationally noted scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was able to quickly resolve his wrongful arrest in a relatively short time (and I do believe that it was a wrongful arrest, as is any arrest for a crime that the arrestee did not commit).

    Very few Black people — very few people of any ethnicity — have Gates’s name recognition, education, or influence, though. However tempted you might be to dismiss the reality of racism and racial profiling by the recent revelation that Gates 911 caller Lucia Whalen did not initially name the ethnicity of the burglarly suspects that she believed she might have seen, we must all understand that the strong reaction to what transpired between she and the CPD, Crowley and Gates is a reflection of the fear that Black many people have of being treated as criminals by police and civilians, even when they have not committed a crime.

    Do check out my most recent post on this issue. Just follow this link.

  5. jaks

    Agree on your comments, but missing is that mea culpa to Whalen.

  6. SpeakTheTruth

    Time to apologize for jumping to conclusions?

    The 911 call has been released and Whalen never mentioned the men’s race.

  7. Greg

    In reading this post and these comments, as well as the post the above referenced previous post, I have come to a conclusion: The writer condemns the racist acts of Whalen and Crowley, yet uses stereotyping and racial profiling to justify the actions of Gates.

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