False Equivalencies and the Gates Arrest, Part I

Written by Frank Rudy Cooper

Just because apples and oranges are both round does not mean they are the same fruit. I say this because I have just read the Cambridge Review Committee’s June 30, 2010, final report on Police officer James Crowley’s July 16, 2009 arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  Let me begin by saying that, as a Cambridge bred and current Cantabridgian, I am glad the report describes a “Cambridge way” of policing that involves respect for citizens.  I am not so happy about the report’s conclusion that Crowley and Gates had “shared responsibilities” for the incident.  Put simply, just because Crowley and Gates are both men does not mean they are equally responsible for keeping the peace.

The report’s trick is to take the unusual and important insight that these were men and use that fact to suggest they were equally accountable.  According to the report, both men lost their tempers.  “For various reasons,” says the report, “each man reported feeling a certain fear of the other.”  Apparently, Crowley was justifiably fearful of Gates, a slight older man with a limp, because reported break-ins are always potentially dangerous.  Gates was afraid because Crowley was a police officer.  Elsewhere, http://ssrn.com/abstract=1257183, I have argued that the hegemonic pattern of masculinity leads men to be anxious to protect their masculine self esteem and eager to be competitive with other men.  In the police-civilian context, this may lead to what I call a “masculinity contest.”  That is, the men may face-off in a confrontation where only one can maintain his masculine esteem while the other backs off or is subdued.  In this sense, the report is right to highlight these two men’s fears and the fact that they were men.

But these men were not similarly situated.  Crowley is a burly young police officer, he carries a gun and (thanks to the “blue wall of silence” and public attitudes like those expressed in this report) has the authority to use it as he sees fit.  Further, as even someone with casual knowledge of African-American history, let alone Gates, would know, police have historically used their guns much more frequently on blacks as opposed to whites.  Recent research on implicit bias supports the conclusion that such police bias continues today.  In contrast to Crowley, Gates is a relatively frail man and carries no weapon.  Most importantly, though, Crowley is duty-bound to keep the peace and trained to deal with conflict; Gates is a professor, he is neither obligated nor trained to keep his cool.  The men did not have equal responsibility for this incident.  Until they recognize that fact, the Cambridge police will continue to harass black civilians.