For all the flack she’s taken for her now famous quote that “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life”, Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s words have a prescient ring these days. In fact, given last week’s nightmare on Ware Street, the judge might want to broaden her definition of males prone to jumping to thoroughly wrong conclusions based on their life experience.

Following the showdown between Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley in Cambridge, headlines have been dominated by the question of whether or not racial profiling led to Gates’s eventual arrest at his own home. That the professor and the arresting officer “probably overreacted”– as President Obama diplomatically characterized the event– is now painfully (embarrassingly, for them, I imagine) clear. But what if the scholar and the cop had had the benefit of a third party to help mitigate the escalation of tension and ill-will? Someone who could see things clearly from both men’s points-of-view and bridge the divide? An individual uniquely qualified to diffuse the perfect storm of race, class, guns, badges and testosterone that gathered on Professor Gates’s front porch with alarming speed? What if a wise Latina woman had been on the scene?
Had Judge Sotomayor been there, her first order of business probably would have been to advise Gates to cooperate when Crowley requested that he to step outside onto the porch. Surely she’d have seen the futility in Gates’s questioning a police officer’s motives before establishing why he was there– never mind hurling invectives like “why, because I’m a black man in America?” in answer to Crowley’s assertion that he was there to investigate a “break in progress.” Sotomayor, being familiar with conflict resolution in both ivy-league lecture halls and on the streets, could have pointed out the differences to Gates: chief among them that police officers are required to follow procedure in a specified manner because the consequences for not doing so could mean the difference between life and death. Of course, had Gates wished to formally make a case that racial-profiling was at play, Sotomayor could have offered expert counsel on that front as well.
No doubt, Gates’s preppy attire, wire-rimmed glasses and overall affect are professorial– almost to the point of caricature. Other than George Will, Henry Louis Gates is the only man I can visualize who actually looks comfortable in a bow tie. His age and use of a cane only add the the overall impression that this is a man who is non-threatening, upstanding and trustworthy. But had Crowley walked away from an alleged crime scene based on such superficial evidence it would have constituted negligence on his part. What if, for example, a break in had occurred and Professor Gates was being held hostage inside his home? Wouldn’t the wisest course of action have been for the responding officer to remain on the front porch until he could assess the situation? And wouldn’t this have been the most efficient way of getting the homeowner out of harm’s way had such a crime been in progress? By any measure, Gates failed the first crucial step which required nothing more than compliance on his part.
The next misstep occurred after Crowley asked to see identification– ostensibly to determine if he was in fact on Gates’s property. Instead of providing a driver’s license or other government-issued piece of identification, Gates proffered his Harvard identity card. This, along with his alleged statement that Crowley “hadn’t heard the last from him” eased Gates out of the category of bookish intellectual and into the realm of class-card-playing elitist. At this point, any wise bystander– Latina or otherwise– might have encouraged the professor to dial back on the posturing, and just present proper I.D. After all, of what was the value in letting Sgt. Crowley know where Gates worked when Crowley was obviously trying to determine where Gates lived? At this point, if Crowley got fed up with being dragged into a game of “do-you-know-I-am” when he was simply trying to do his job is not only understandable, but forgivable. Class prejudices run deep across all strata in most college towns. Surely, Professor Gates could not have been ignorant of this fact as he chose to signal that he was a member of the privileged/ruling class. Unfortunately, the gambit got him nowhere and things spiraled downward from there.
The irony that Sgt. Crowley should find himself accused of racism when he has served as instructor for a Lowell Police Academy course entitled “Racial Profiling” since 2004 is impossible to overstate. Still, for all his training and purported goodwill, one wonders how sensitive a post-civil rights white male can be to the pre-civil rights reality of what it meant to be black in America. An America with which Skip Gates was all too well acquainted: where a black man with dignity was viewed as a threat, systematically undermined and under attack– as often by those charged with upholding the law as by those intent on breaking it. Whether the assaults were state-sanctioned– as with Jim Crow Laws– or manifest in a tone of voice meant to belittle and degrade its target, blacks and whites have yet to live down the legacy. What Sgt. Crowley may not have taken into account is that for all his good intentions his very physicality and authoritative posture may well have caused Gates to travel back in time, whether rightly or not, and respond accordingly.
Had Sotomayor materialized at this juncture the fracas would never have become the stuff of water cooler legend. While there’s a hole in Crowley’s police report that doesn’t quite explain what triggered Skip Gates’s “loud and tumultuous behavior” (logic suggests that the truth lies somewhere between both mens’ account of what happened)– the broad support the sergeant has received from colleagues of all races indicates that he would have been open to Sotomayor’s suggestions for navigating the situation differently. Might Professor Gates, for example, been put off by what he perceived of as a less-than-deferential tone, in his own home, by a much younger man? With her Caribbean background (where children learn to respect their elders… or die trying) Sotomayor would have seen this faux-pas from a mile off. And whereas Crowley had every right to see himself as the more vulnerable of the two (though armed, the fact remains that he had no idea who Gates was– while the professor had a more facts at his disposal from the start); based on countless tales of police brutality and, yes, racial profiling, Gates could be forgiven for feeling threatened at the sight of an armed, white police officer on his doorstep when he hadn’t summoned one.
That said, as any kid from the Bronx could have told Gates, there are three simple rules for dealing with the police:
1. Don’t get bent out of shape by his or her tone. After all, how would any of us conduct ourselves if the potential for getting shot at, cursed out, spat on and threatened were part of our job description?
2. Do not, under any circumstances, yell at someone who is armed, stressed and, quite possibly, crazier than you. Nothing good can come of this.
3. If you feel you’re the victim of police brutality, don’t seek resolution by arguing with your abuser. Take it to a higher authority.
Of course, trying to determine who’s right or wrong at times like these is pointless as once the human instinct for self-preservation kicks in, rational thought is typically the first casualty. For all we know, in the heat of the moment, both Crowley and Gates may have felt their lives were on the line. Still, if we, as a nation, strive to learn anything from situations like these, it is imperative that voices from a variety of cultures, races, classes and socio-economic backgrounds take part in the discussion.
For all our sakes, let’s hope that the Senate Judiciary Committee is paying attention.