Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

More Gates Fallout

Why the Henry Louis Gates story won't go away.

Last week's arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates continues to be a story with legs. There's no shortage of angles on the saga, from the question of to what extent does race influence our daily perceptions to the political matter of whether a sitting president should be commenting on local law enforcement issues. The latest development is the Cambridge Police's release today of the recordings of the original 911 call and police radio transmissions.

The shelf-life of this story is interesting in and of itself. I'm on vacation right now, and have been learning of these developments through TV bulletins at restaurants and other public locations. I've started to hear many of my fellow patrons express fatigue at the story, along the lines of enough already.

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At one level, I understand. There's nothing pressing or urgent about this story. The charges were dropped, so it's not as if Gates is faces an uncertain legal future. On the other hand, the story speaks to broader societal issues that elicit strong, polarizing responses from people. And for that reason, I think I'd rather see us fixate a bit too long on this incident than, say, the latest Jon & Kate developments or many of the other human interest stories that seem to pass for news these days.

On the broader issues underscoring the incident, it's worth noting, as others have, that Gates' arrest in Cambridge was not an example of racial profiling. The police officer showed up to the residence because of the 911 call about a possible break-in, not because he was, say, patrolling the streets looking for people who fit his profile of home invaders. The incident has led to many start a broader discussion and debate about racial profiling, but profiling itself was not at play here.

That said, the mistake that some have made is to suggest that because this was not racial profiling, race is irrelevant here. As my email inbox (and comments to my previous post) can attest, the argument made is that race had nothing to do with the arrest and any suggestion to the contrary is inappropriate–it's just "playing the race card," a phrase that has maddeningly evolved into a multi-purpose pejorative people can unveil anytime they want to get out of a conversation about race.

The whole "race-card" movement is so well-established by now that it even reared its head in response to today's news that the original witness who called 911 in the Gates case never said that she saw two Black men (only when pressed for details did she suggest that she wasn't sure, but one of the men seemed to be "Hispanic"). That's right, if you start reading the web comments in response to this development, many suggest that this only proves that race had nothing to do with the incident and that Gates himself has stirred up all this trouble through–you guessed it–the proverbial race card.

But come on. Just think about it for a moment. What today's developments really indicate is that there's something interestingly problematic with the police report that the arresting officer filed. You know, the report that stated that he had spoken with the witness who called 911, and that she had told him she saw "two Black men with backpacks" barging into Gates' house? According to the witness, not only did she never provide racial descriptors to the 911 operator, but she also didn't have any such conversation with Sgt. Crowley.

This leaves three possibilities, if we assume the witness is telling the truth (as she was regarding what she said in the 911 call):

1) Sgt. Crowley's police report cut some corners. That is, rather than explain how a witness called 911, then dispatch called him, and that through a variety of sources and observations he learned that the two men in question were Black, perhaps Crowley thought he'd streamline matters and take the short-cut of writing that he learned from the witness that there were two Black men at the scene.

2) Sgt. Crowley mistakenly believed that he learned this information from the witness as he arrived upon the scene, thus the inaccuracy in his report.

3) Sgt. Crowley intentionally added inaccuracies to his report. Why would he do this? I suppose we could speculate that it was a post-hoc effort to make it seem as if the situation he had encountered was more dangerous and threatening than it turned out to be, thus justifying an arrest. And maybe "Black men with backpacks" seemed particularly nefarious? But, of course, there's no way to prove or disprove such an allegation, so debating it is simply an exercise in speculation.

What we do know is that–surprise, surprise–Crowley's police report can't be treated as some sort of first-person gospel that sets the record straight in the matter.  At the very least, we now know it contains inaccuracies, and at worst, it could take intentional liberties with the truth.  Now to be fair, it would also be less than shocking to find out that Gates' version of events has holes or inconsistencies. But make no mistake, today was not a good day for the Cambridge Police Department in the Gates matter.  Far from proving that the policework in this case was impeccable and race-neutral, today's developments leave us wondering not whether, but why there are inaccuracies in the police report–as well as how wide-ranging these inaccuracies might be.

And back to race, the truth of the matter is that we'll never know whether it played a role in Gates' arrest.  Frankly,  that's how it almost always is when trying to diagnose the influence of race in today's society.

Many of you have emailed me or posted to suggest that race had nothing to do with it–that this was just an instance of two proud men behaving badly. Perhaps you're right, though the contrarian in me will continue to maintain that one of the two men was a civilian in his own home and the other an on-duty police officer. If a tie goes to the runner in baseball, then the same rule must apply here, with the tie going to the civilian, no?

But I have far more trouble with a different assertion, the "this is all Gates' fault" argument. I have no reason to doubt that Sgt. Crowley is a good man and even a good police officer, and I have no reason to believe that he gave any thought to race as the incident went on. Still, despite all this, research suggests that it wouldn't be surprising for the suspect's status as a Black man to have led Crowley to perceive the incident as more threatening or to see Gates' disposition as even more hostile. And at the end of the day, whether you like Gates or not, we're still left with a police officer who allowed a fairly routine call to escalate out of control, and a judgment-call arrest that was quickly dismissed and referred to as "regrettable" by the very department that now stands so firmly behind its officer.

Of the possible explanations for this unnecessary outcome, I've yet to see anything that rules out the influence of race from being part of that discussion. And so the discussion goes on, whether or not some people are comfortable with it...

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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