Ron Radosh

Lessons of the Teaching Moment

Perhaps we’ll never know exactly what happened the night that Sgt. James Crowley arrested Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home.  Certainly, the nation’s blacks and whites, including the President, have differing perceptions.  According to a recent WSJ/NBC poll, 30% of whites believe Gates was more at fault, compared to only 4% of African-Americans.            

During this incident much attention was given to the issue of racial profiling, focusing on the history of African-Americans’ negative experience with the police, which many think contributed to Gates’ response.  We haven’t heard as much about the other victims caught up in it.  I first got a whiff of this while watching MSNBC’s  “Morning Joe,” when co-host Mika Brzezinski, who had remarked that we did not know yet that Crowley had acted inappropriately, reported that  she was very disturbed by the number of hateful and even threatening e-mails she had  received.  

Next was the pitiful press conference  held by Lucia Whalen- the woman who phoned 911 to report what she thought was a break-in at someone’s home.  The press incorrectly assumed she had described the men trying to get into the house as African-Americans.  She was painted as a racist, hounded by the press, and forced to give a press conference to try to clear her name. Whalen told the assembled TV crews: “The criticism at first was painful for me and difficult; I was frankly afraid to say anything,” she said. “People called me racist and said I caused all the turmoil that followed, and some even said threatening things that made me fear for my safety. I knew the truth, but I didn’t speak up right away because I did not want to add to the controversy.”

On the day of the scheduled beer session at the White House, police Sergeant Leon Lashley, the African-American officer who was with Sgt. Crowley at the time of Gates’ arrest, wrote an emotional e-mail to CNN’s Don Lemon.(You can see Lemon’s report here.)  Lashley had been widely quoted as supporting Crowley’s version of what happened. Now, he told Lemon that he was being called by some black people “an Uncle Tom.” Moreover, he added, “as a result of speaking the truth, and coming to the defense of a friend and colleague who just happens to be white, that I have somehow betrayed my heritage.” He asked Crowley to convey to President Obama his belief that Gates’ charge of racial profiling had “caused grave and potentially irreparable harm to the struggle for racial harmony in this country….” He then asked Gates to reflect what he might do to heal “the rift caused by some of [his] actions.” 

Finally, after the supposed teaching moment had ended, Crowley came to the microphone, and made clear that neither he nor Gates made any apologies, but that both had agreed to meet again and to try and look forward. Crowley also thanked the police department where he lived for protecting his own family, who evidently had also received threats because of  Sgt. Crowley’s act of arresting Gates.

 At no time, does there seem to be vitriol and intimidation coming from Sgt. Crowley’s side. There have been no reports that anyone has threatened Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., or any of his public defenders. Yet all those who have challenged Gates’ account, or who have argued that while Sgt. Crowley may have overreacted, he was not engaging in an incorrect action taken in the line of duty as a police offer, have found themselves branded as racist or worse, and even had their physical safety threatened.          

It appears, in other words, that in today’s America, with an African-American President and in a town whose Mayor is African-American, the threats are emanating not from white racists, but from those who claim to be opposed to white racism. We do not know, since threats made by cowards are always made anonymously, whether they come from African-Americans or denizens of the Cambridge, Massachusetts left-wing, living in what everyone calls “The People’s Republic of Cambridge.” 

One thing is certain. This has been a teaching moment, although the lessons learned are not necessarily those spoken of by President Obama.