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July 29, 2009

Black and blue and stupid, too

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On Thursday afternoon, July 16, the otherwise peaceful and stately Ware Street in Cambridge, MA, within shouting distance of Harvard University, became the latest ground zero for a debate over race relations in our country.


For everyone who wishes that the debate would just go away, the uneasy discussion over racial relations in America continues to take one step forward and two steps back.


This story gets tedious quickly. On July 20, The Associated Press reported: “Police responding to a call about ‘two black males’ breaking into a home near Harvard University ended up arresting the man who lives there – Henry Louis Gates Jr., the nation's pre-eminent black scholar.


“Gates had forced his way through the front door because it was jammed… Colleagues call the arrest last Thursday afternoon a clear case of racial profiling.”


The plot followed an all too familiar storyline. First there were the initial sensational reports in the media that a prominent African American scholar, at Harvard, no less, was arrested at his own home for breaking into his own house.


Unfortunately, for black males in our country, it is a story that is all-too familiar.


However, as more facts come to light, the incident began to remind many of the infamous Duke lacrosse players’ debacle some time ago in which an African American female claimed that she had been assaulted by the lacrosse team at a party.


After all the facts became clear, it was obvious that no crime had been committed – except for extreme stupidity on the part of a whole host of bad actors.


The next segment of the story developed quickly. This is the stage where the background of the individuals involved is meticulously investigated in an attempt to find aggravating or mitigating circumstances – depending on your point of view.


The police report was scoured with a fine toothcomb looking for clues as to what really happened. The report may be found here.


In an unfortunate turn of events, President Barack Obama lost his script as the great uniter and weighed in badly as the great divider at a news conference last week, and further disseminated bad information by saying the Cambridge police department acted “stupidly.”


In the final stage, almost all of the finger-pointers have egg on their face and are walking back from what they said in haste and spinning it for all its worth.


The news media was only too happy to help the president walk back from his unfortunate hasty words when it was revealed that Dr. Gates may have, in reality, precipitated his own victimization by his uncivil treatment of the police officer involved in the incident.


The arresting officer turns out to be a police officer with a sterling record for being the poster-child for color-blind law enforcement and having a positive impact on black and blue relations.


In fact, according to The Associated Press, “Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley has taught a class about racial profiling for five years at the Lowell Police Academy after being hand-picked for the job by former police Commissioner Ronny Watson, who is black…”


Another recent AP article reports that Dr. Gates now wants the whole thing to go away. Well, gee, I guess he does. The prestigious gentleman cried wolf and looks really stupid as a result.


The fact that Dr. Gates has earned the chip on his shoulder is moot.  Any casual investigation into his background indicates that he has been treated badly in the past.


But this is now. If we all acted-out on our bad memories, chaos would quickly follow.


Turns out Dr. Gates was arrested not for being “a black man in America,” as he alleged during the incident, but because he acted “stupidly” towards the very police officer who showed up at his house to protect his property.


Should Sergeant Crowley have arrested him for being a jerk? I wasn’t there, but probably not. That said, it is significant that the black police officers of the department fully backed Sergeant Crowley up and that dynamic is hard to overlook.


In the end “celebrity justice” prevailed and the charges were dropped. Another invaluable lesson learned. If one alleges racism, or if you are a prominent member of the community, the rules are different.


AP has reported Dr. Gates as saying: “It is time for all of us to move on, and to assess what we can learn from this experience.” AP further elaborates that “Gates promised to do all he could so others could learn from his arrest.”


“This could – and should – be a profound teaching moment in the history of race relations in America…”


Memo to Dr. Gates, when in a hole, stop digging.


I sincerely hope that everyone learns that acting stupid with the very police officers who are trying to protect you and your property has consequences.


That not all men and women in blue are racists and, all too often, middle-aged black men with lots of hard-earned baggage act-out at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons.


All across the board, everyone loses in this incident. By all accounts, Dr. Gates is a distinguished gentleman who is now known for one of the worst moments in his life and not for a lifetime of achievement.


The president looked bad – really bad, and at a time when we are all looking to him for solid and measured judgment, he faltered, lending much fodder for his critics.


But for the many who have worked tirelessly for a color-blind society and to heal the wounds of decades of indiscretions, the incident sets us all back.


Whether we wish to admit it or not, despite all the efforts to move forward, we must remain constantly vigilant to eradicate any racism that may raise its ugly head.


Now, what do we do with the next incident in which racism, in fact, really does occur? I’m just asking!


(Full disclosure: Mr. Dayhoff is a life member of the NAACP – and once served as the mayor of a community with a 43-member police department.)


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at



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