Opinion

Gates, race, and 'driving while black'

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Does "Cambridge-Gate" tell us anything about the state of race relations in America? Or was the arrest of prestigious Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. just an isolated incident that's been blown out of proportion?

The dueling perspectives are revealing. President Obama originally said the Cambridge police acted stupidly. The officers – ironically, the lead one teaches a class about racial profiling – insist they followed protocol.

In "post-racial" America, discussing uncomfortable racial encounters, especially by law enforcement, can seem like whining or victimhood.

Unfortunately, our racial discourse too often dissolves into generalities, conflations, and misunderstanding.

The fact that the nation, including Obama, interrupted an urgent debate about healthcare reform to reflect on this particular arrest speaks volumes about how race continues to matter in our society. Just this afternoon, Obama told the press he had called Sgt. James Crowley (the arresting officer) to clarify his remarks and suggested he'd like to share a beer with him and Professor Gates at the White House.

Gates's story resonated with me – a black law and medical school professor – and I wish it had not, because it recalls my pain in similar encounters.

I remember the time I was pulled over in Indiana about seven years ago. The gum-chewing officer demanded to know: "What's the situation here?"

A look of disbelief blossomed into terror across the faces of my two white colleagues from Europe, as I explained to the officer that the men were colleagues and I was driving them to the airport. Unsatisfied with that answer, he went to the passenger side of the car, to confirm this from my Italian colleague. Only then did he let us proceed.

Or there was last year in Chicago, when I was pulled over after leaving the Mercedes Benz repair shop. The officer came to my car wanting to know whether the car was mine. I explained that it was and that I was on my way to work at the University of Chicago. Yet he continued to ask, several times, whether the car belonged to me. Each time, I answered "Yes." The irony is that he was holding the registration papers, insurance card, and my driver's license. What more proof could I offer?

My frustration deepened precisely because the officer had verification of my ownership. His further delay wasted his time and mine. I refuse the cloak of victimhood, but after he pulled away, I called my husband – a white professor – and wept long and hard.

Perhaps the incident that troubles me most deeply, and which remains difficult to talk about, occurred 10 years ago, my daughter was in pre-school.

We were pulled over at night, after being followed for (I would later learn) 31 miles by an unmarked car driven by an officer not in uniform. When I asked for his identification, the man hurled racial epithets and screamed "I am the police," while beating on my car with his flashlight.

Fortunately, for my daughter and I, my friend, a white social worker whose seat had been in full recline, sat up and began screaming. When the officer saw her he stopped beating my car. I immediately called the police. As the officers arrived, we were told to drive off.

It was my friend who followed-up, filing the police complaint. It was a terror that she will not forget. I recently looked at the internal investigation report to prove to myself that it wasn't just a horrible dream.

We will never know exactly what happened at Gates's home July 16. But in a city full of noisy college students, police regularly deal with loudness and tumultuous behavior. So doesn't it seem odd that officers chose to arrest a slight, gray-haired man who relies on a cane to walk – after they confirmed it was his home?

Despite some of my experiences, I know that most officers are well-meaning and sophisticated; they deal with emotionally-charged situations in homes all the time and often provide relief. Think of the reaction when a mom finds out her child has been injured or assaulted.

In the spirit of helpfulness, why not search the home for a burglar, to protect Gates, whom they knew belonged there?

Black professors expect that if they work hard, accumulate multiple degrees, write prolifically, defy low expectations, and exceed the highest standards, they'll be insulated from stereotypes and maltreatment. But fair or reasonable treatment is not a societal goal reserved for only the well-educated. Everyone deserves at least that, even in Cambridge.

Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a professor of law and a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Minnesota.

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