Opinion polls of black and white Americans consistently reveal contrasting views on race. From the O.J. Simpson trial to Hurricane Katrina, many within the two groups see the same sets of facts in very different ways.
So it is not surprising that the recent arrest of Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has sparked such emotional debate and discussion. By now, anyone not living under a rock the past week is aware that Gates, a prominent African-American scholar, was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He had forgotten his key and needed to break in to his own home. A neighbor saw him and his driver trying to get in, thought a burglary was in progress and called police. After an officer arrived, words were exchanged and a white officer arrested and handcuffed the professor for disorderly conduct. The charges were quickly dropped.
Gates said he had been racially profiled, threatened a discrimination lawsuit and demanded an apology. The arresting officer, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, and his department said Gates had behaved belligerently and that race was not a factor in the arrest.
Interest in the incident intensified when President Obama, a friend of Gates, said at the end of a 45-minute news conference on health care that Crowley "acted stupidly.'' Later in the week, Obama said he regretted his choice of words, adding that both men probably "overreacted.'' He invited them to the White House to discuss the matter. Gates says he's willing, but neither the Cambridge police nor Crowley have commented on the offer. On Monday, the department released the tape of the 911 call in which Crowley tells dispatchers that Gates is being uncooperative and "keep the cars coming.''
The incident is a reminder that a group characterized by another color -- a blue uniform -- has tremendous power over average citizens and must exercise that power judiciously, fairly and with sensitivity. In many urban areas, law enforcement has, at times, fallen short of those goals. Minneapolis is among big city police departments with long history of poor relations with black and other minority neighborhoods and a list of police brutality and discrimination-related court settlements.
Clearly the Gates/Crowley exchange involved a volatile mix of power, race and testosterone. Both men felt they deserved respect, and neither would back down. As black history scholar, the educator brought his life's work, personal experience and well-documented evidence of police discrimination and profiling against black men to the exchange. And at the same time, Crowley saw an angry black man who was not respecting his authority and needed to be restrained.
We hope the professor and the cop will take the president up on his invitation to talk under calmer, cooler circumstances. Based on the accounts offered by the pair, there are good reasons for both to apologize.
As both Obama and Gates now say, other valuable lessons could come out of this latest race-fueled controversy. It could lead to less racial profiling. It could lead to the kind of honest talk that can improve race relations. It could create better police-community relations in cities across the country.
Honest and thoughtful evaluation of what happened and how it could have been prevented can only help narrow the perception gap between races.