Was there a better way to conduct Gates-Crowley debate?

The national discourse over the Harvard professor's arrest, fueled by bloggers and media, was torrid. Some who leaped into the fray got burned.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama sits down for a beer with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge, Massachusetts, police Sergeant James Crowley, and Vice President Joe Biden, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington Thursday.
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Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley closed a major chapter in “Gates-gate” with Thursday night’s meeting with President Obama in the Rose Garden (though there may yet be an epilogue). But for some of those drawn into the vortex of the national debate over race relations, the episode continues to have both personal and political reverberations.

The take-away for some: A no-holds-barred exchange about race and society is still difficult in America – and can be punishing for those perceived to be impolitic.

To be sure, Dr. Gates's July 16 arrest for disorderly conduct was followed by an onslaught of candid discussion on the airwaves, over the Internet, and across kitchen tables. But the main problem, social critics say, is that racially defined “scripts” still take over the debate – and get amplified by the Internet opinion storm – with the media often serving as the punishing arm if the script is ignored or breached.

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Some say a free-for-all debate is not, in the end, what's needed. Respectful dialogue – in contrast to all the shouting and finger-pointing that went on – is the only way to truly reduce prejudices on both sides, say those who hold this view.

“The best way to defuse, diminish, and ultimately dismantle the power of [prejudice] is to show even excessive respect in potential situations of conflict,” writes the Rev. Jim Wallis, author of “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It,” in an e-mail.

But the media's power to amplify, combined with lingering black rage and white guilt over the historic treatment of African-Americans, appeared to catch some debate participants off guard. The lesson may well be: Be careful what you say.

President Obama himself found this out. His poll numbers have taken a beating in the days since he called it like he saw it, calling police out for acting “stupidly” for arresting a man on his own front porch, a point on which many constitutional scholars back him up.

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center survey released this week found that 41 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the Gates arrest, compared with 29 percent who approve. Of white respondents, half disapprove, with support for the president falling most quickly among working-class whites – a key constituency.

‘Inversion of racial history’

Lucia Whalen, the passer-by who called 911 to report a possible burglary in progress at Gates’s house at 17 Ware Street, called a tearful press conference Wednesday to say that she does not judge people by their skin color but “by their character.”

Ms. Whalen initially was excoriated as a racist by many bloggers, since it first appeared that she told police that two black men with backpacks were trying to get into the house. The 911 tapes prove she never mentioned race on her own, and, when prompted by a dispatcher, said only that one of the men might have been Hispanic. She also mentioned suitcases, not backpacks.

Before Whalen spoke to the media, her friends and acquaintances had pointed out that she isn’t white but an “olive-skinned” first-generation Portuguese immigrant. Their defense of her is a stark commentary on the state of America’s race dialogue, some experts say.

“We have in this country this idea that being labeled an anonymous, dehumanized white woman makes you automatically sound like a Bull Conner,” says Jonathan Bean, author of “Race and Liberty in America.” “So you rush to defend yourself by playing up your nonwhite characteristics. It’s a bizarre inversion of racial history. It’s not progress; it’s sad, really.”

Illegal to hate the police?

Washington attorney Pepin Tuma, after telling friends that police too often overreact when not given what they deem to be proper deference, spotted six police cars at a traffic stop last Saturday. He decided to test his theory by chanting, in a sing-song voice, “I hate the police. I hate the police.”

A police officer who overheard him confronted Mr. Tuma and arrested him for disorderly conduct, the same charge that Gates faced before his charges were dropped.

“People talk about the Gates thing in terms of race, but it's an ongoing problem of police using disorderly conduct to shut people up," Tuma told the Huffington Post. He has filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Police Complaints.

‘Uncle Tom’?

Leon Lashley, the veteran black Cambridge sergeant who was at the scene when Gates was arrested and who subsequently supported Sergeant Crowley’s account, on Thursday wrote in an e-mail to Crowley (for delivery to the president) that he has been called an “Uncle Tom” by many in the African-American community for his refusal to admit that Gates was racially profiled.

Gates’s refusal to back down from his view that he had been racially profiled, wrote Sergeant Lashley, may have done “irreparable harm” to relations between police and the black community.

At his press conference Thursday night after the Rose Garden meeting, Crowley said, “I knew Sergeant Lashley would be putting himself in a position to be ridiculed for his support [of me].”

Gun stripped for 'jungle monkey' remark

Boston police officer Justin Barrett has said a Boston Globe column defending Gates sparked him to wade into the debate, verbosity blazing. Officer Barrett had his gun stripped and possibly his badge for calling Gates in a mass e-mail “a banana-eating jungle monkey” for standing up to a police officer trying to do his job.

“I am not a racist but I am prejudiced towards people who are stupid and pretend to stand up and preach for something they say is freedom but it is merely attention because you do not get enough of it in your little fear-dwelling circle of on-the-bandwagon followers,” Barrett wrote in the e-mail.

He told CNN he had never used such language before and said he did not know what moved him to use it in his e-mail.

‘O-dumb-a’?

Twenty-four-year-old Lee Landor, too, is out of a job after sharing her thoughts on the Gates imbroglio.

The deputy press secretary for the Manhattan Borough president resigned after a newspaper published photos of her Facebook entries, written at work, about the Gates incident.

In the entry, she called Obama “O-dumb-a” for siding with Gates against the police, despite acknowledging he didn’t have all the facts. She also defended racial profiling, pointing to the fact that black men make up the majority of the US prison population. In fact, she says, in her opinion, it was Gates who racially profiled Crowley by virtue of the officer being white.

“Regardless of how I said it, my point was there’s a double standard when it comes to talking about race,” she said in a phone interview with the Monitor. “Some people can talk about it, and some people can’t.”

Ms. Landor would not define by race who can, saying it depends on the context: “If you're so conscious of your race and you behave based on that, who's the one who's perpetuating a problem? You!”

Carla Murphy contributed reporting from New York.

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