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.”