Empathy Has to Go Both Ways with Race
I hesitate to help stir the pot of manufactured racial strife, but the prominent black academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard has illustrated too perfectly why racial division will persist until such “leaders” of minority communities as him begin arguing, by example, for mutual empathy.
Gates returned from a research trip to find that his house key wouldn’t work: “the lock had been tampered with.” So, he and his driver, another black man whom Gates described as large, forced the door open. A neighbor called the police and gave a description of the men.
You can guess the script. The police arrived, and one of them (white) tweaked Gates’s sensibilities when he used the Voice of Authority (a “threatening” tone, in Gates’s words) in the course of sorting the matter out, and the ensuing scene ended with Gates’s arrest. The critical moment, in my view, comes with the professor’s “instinct” that he “was not to step outside” per the officer’s instructions. (Curiously, the Washington Post appears to have scrubbed that quotation from its online report.)
Having been the target of the Voice of Authority a few times when I was younger, I probably join a great many other white men (and women, too, no doubt, but fewer) in seeing no racial component to the officer’s behavior. Moreover, with even a weak attempt at objective distance, something that should be as natural as breathing to a Harvardian big brain, it’s possible to discern that, contrary to Gates’s assessment, the policeman didn’t have a single “narrative” of the “black guy breaking and entering.” Rather, he likely had multiple possible scenarios in mind, and it is his often-dangerous job to weave through them all and return to his cruiser with nobody injured or killed.
A little empathy for his perspective is merited. The police department received a call about two men of a particular description forcing entry into a suburban home. Upon officers’ arrival to the site, only one of the men was present, and he relatively short and old. The fact that the policeman entered the house by himself suggests that “misunderstanding” was already one “narrative in his head,” but if that misunderstanding could be resolved on the porch, he could remain within view of the “half dozen” of his colleagues who were also on the scene.
It’s possible that wisdom should have suggested (if protocol allowed) that the men in blue make the hastiest possible exit and leave Gates fuming on his front steps. But he began to push and belittle, escalating the scene to the point at which the officers thought it justified to arrest him and to thereby kick off a spate of news coverage and a new professional initiative for academic.
All parties involved will emerge unscathed or, in Gates’s case, to their own advantage. Unfortunately for some young black man further down the cultural lines of communication, however, the “instinct” that turned an anecdote into an incident has been reinforced, and it might not end so well for him.