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The Real Reason Prof. Henry Louis Gates was Arrested

Obama was right about Prof. Gates' arrest!

Before I begin this article, I want it to be clear that there are few people who care about race relations more than I do. And please don’t accuse me of lack of sensitivity to race issues. Most of my relatives lost their lives in Europe during World War II for the terrible “crime” of being Jews. Unfortunately, race (I mean this in the broadest sense to refer to all group identifications) has become the most sensitive subject in American society, so one always risks the danger of being attacked as being racially insensitive whenever expressing unconventional views regarding race. Before you impulsively write enraged comments, please consider my point of view with an open mind. I am not trying to offend anyone, but to show the best path to reducing racism.

Important Addendum, August 6, 2009

I am adding this a week after I initially sent out the blog entry. Thanks to many astute readers, including my wife, I realize I made an error that went contrary to my own teachings. I fell into the trap of my own victim mentality and unfairly took out my resentments against police in a way that prevented me from applying my point of view correctly and understanding the police point of view. I was considering removing this blog entry altogether to avoid generating addtional hostility, but I will take the courageous path and leave it, as much of the analysis I believe is correct, and I shouldn't hide the feelings generated within me due to my experiences with police or deny what I wrote. All I request is that before you decide to turn against me upon reading the article below, please consider these clarifications.

In this blog, I describe police as the "biggest bullies," going against my own advice that we stop thinking of people in this insulting manner, "bully." I forgot my basic teaching that people who seem like bullies to us usually experience themselves as victims. "Bully," despite it's use by academics as if it were a diagnosis, is not a diagnosis and we have no business using this term scientifically. It is an insulting description of the way we experience others who we feel are dominating us. People are most dangerous both to themselves and to others not when they feel like bullies–which they rarely do–but when they feel like victims.

It was a mistake for me to call police bullies, though it is easy for us to experience them in this way because their job requires them to be able to intimidate the public or they wouldn't be able to function. When Sgt. Crowley arrested Gates, he did so because he felt like he was Prof. Gates' victim, and from his point of view, this is correct. Crowley was simply trying to do his job, and he was given a hard time by Gates. I continue to assert that I don't believe Gates' behavior warranted his being arrested in an enlightened republic, and I beiieve governement itself has been given way too much power by a population that increasingly looks to the government to solve their problems for them. However, I don't fault Crowley for arresting Gates for talking back to him this because that is what police are taught to do in our country. I believe that many governmental (including police) practices can be more enlightened, but police are following the procedures they are taught. If I were to write this blog over, I would have described both Crowly and Gates as victims of each other, and not of Crowley acting from a bully mentality. So please forgive me in advance for the error of my ways.

I also describe what happens to the mind of people when they are given the power of the badge and gun. Though this may not sound complimentary to police, it is simply human nature to acquire this attitude. This is supposed to be a psychological blog, and I hope you will see my analysis as an objective psychological one, not as a personal attack against police officers. We all have the same human nature, and I would acquire the same attitude if I were a policeman. Police R' Us.

The irony of the Prof. Gates arrest

This past week, we witnessed a remarkable irony. In the first year of the reign of the first Black president in US history, the country’s most prominent Black scholar, the brilliant and accomplished Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University, was arrested after breaking into his own home. Prof Gates claimed he was the victim of racial profiling. Ironically, the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, has the job of teaching police officers how to avoid engaging in racial profiling!

Another irony I will be revealing here is that Prof. Gates indeed was NOT being racially profiled, yet he would almost certainly NOT have been arrested had he not believed he was being racially profiled!

I also want to make it clear in advance that I am not faulting Prof. Gates. His behavior under the circumstances was completely understandable to me. And I adamantly insist that his arrest was an outrage. President Obama is being criticized by many people as having been too hasty in calling the arrest “stupid.” I agree with Obama on this one. In fact, Obama’s response was too mild. The arrest was much worse than stupid. It was more fitting for a totalitarian police state, not for an enlightened republic whose Constitution was created specifically to curtail the natural inclination of government to bully its citizens.

There are two factors that resulted in this contemptible arrest. One of them resides in the mind of the arresting officers. The other resides in the mind of the person being arrested (and in virtually all of us, as almost everyone today harbors the mentality I will be referring to).

1. Reason Number One: Police are the Biggest Bullies

Have you ever been confronted by police officers? How did it make you feel? Relieved? Unless you just happened to be chased by criminals at the moment the police appeared, your heart probably sank to your stomach. One of the most anxiety-arousing experiences in our routine lives is being confronted by policemen. You can be reasonably certain that when policemen face you, they are not looking to do something you look forward to.

What are police officers? They are literally the government’s bullies. They are ordinary people who are issued guns and granted the authority to enforce the will of the government. They aren’t necessarily any more saintly or wise than the average person, and neither is the government that hires them. Police are hired by the government to bully us, for better or for worse, forcing us to obey the law. My intention here is not to insult the police. Some of my best friends have been police officers. I am simply stating a fact. If I were a police officer I, too would be a government-employed bully or I wouldn’t be doing my job.

But there is something remarkable that happens to people when the government issues them a uniform and a gun. They acquire an incredible sense of power. And the rest of us immediately reinforce their sense of power. Just imagine that you are a police officer and wherever you go, people become extremely polite and self-effacing in your presence, walk on eggshells for fear of saying the wrong thing to you, and show incredible gratitude whenever you are nice enough to let them off with a warning. How can police officers not come to feel that they are entitled to do whatever they want and to be treated like gods? (The reason so many police officers and military men have terrible home lives and get divorced is that they are used to the entire citizenry treating them with fear and respect, and then they come home to face spouses and children who treat them like ordinary Joe Shmoes.) And how can police avoid developing the belief that no one is allowed to talk back to them, despite the fact that our right to talk back to them and even to curse them is guaranteed by the United States Constitution? In fact, a widely disseminated article makes it clear that the entire law enforcement establishment takes it for granted that they are entitled to arrest anyone who doesn't show them sufficient respect:…

Policemen are virtually the only people you can’t talk back to or you will find yourself in jail. Talk back to the President or your Congressman and you can go home. Talk back to the CEO of a major corporation and you can go home. Talk back to your clergyman, teacher, boss, doctor, spouse, parent or child and you can go home. But talk back to a policeman and you go right to jail. The only equivalent to police officers in this regard is judges. Talk back to them in court and you will also get carted off to jail. But it won’t be by the judge. It is a gun-wielding police officer that will do the dirty work.

The Gates incident is close to home

A personal irony is that the Gates arrest happened shortly after my own son, 23-year-old Yannai, spent 24 hours in jail for the same reason that Prof. Gates did: talking back to a policeman. And it happened over a measly two dollars. I am not justifying what Yannai did. It was foolish and he shouldn’t have done it even though he may have had some moral justification.

Yannai recently took public transportation to Manhattan from our home in Staten Island and jumped the subway turnstile on the way back, depriving the Transit Authority of $2.00. He had never done this before, as he is an honest young man. It was simply his way of trying to get back the $2.00 of which the Transit Authority had cheated him. On a previous trip, because of buses running behind schedule, the time limit for transfers had expired and his electronic Metro Card was charged an extra two dollars. So on the spur of the moment he figured he would get his two bucks back by jumping the turnstile.

To his misfortune, there were police officers on the other side of the turnstile, and Yannai was caught in the act. As an officer began issuing him a fine, Yannai tried to explain why he jumped the turnstile and offered to go back and pay the train fare. The officer would have none of this discussion. He immediately put Yannai into handcuffs and hauled him off to jail, where he spent the next 24 hours with no bed and almost no food.

It is completely understandable that Prof. Gates became distressed and even outraged when Officer Crowley and his colleagues treated him like a potential criminal in his own home. A humane police officer would have understood Prof. Gates’ agitation, quickly ascertained that Gates was indeed the resident, and then left, having completed his job of ensuring the public welfare. But Officer Crowley is obviously infected with the virus that gets transmitted along with the police uniform and gun, and arrested Prof. Gates for failing to treat him like a deity–or even a judge.

From what I know of both arrest situations, Yannai did not show anywhere near the level of disrespect to his arresting officer that Prof. Gates showed to Sgt. Crowley. However, young males are treated with even less patience than graying Black adults, and he, too, was arrested. Of course Prof. Gates and Yannai are considered innocent till proven guilty, but it sure doesn’t feel that way when you are thrown into a filthy jail cell. And if you’ve ever gone to court over a police summons, where it’s your word against the police officer’s, you probably discovered that the idea of being innocent till proven guilty is little more than a joke.

By the way, Prof. Gates' judge threw the case out. In such a high profile case involving a brilliant professor and public figure, the judge wasn't about to pretend the arrest was legal. Yannai wasn't quite so lucky. The judge supported the police officer's action, but let Yannai go home on a half-year probation.

Reason Number Two: The Victim Mentality

The first reason Prof. Gates was arrested is the more obvious one. The bully attitude that comes so readily with the job of police officer is well-known. In fact, Time magazine had an excellent article, The Stupidity of the Gates Arrest,,8599,1912778,00.html, making this very point.

But the second reason is a far subtler one, and I doubt you will read it anywhere but here. It is also what is likely to get some readers mad at me. That reason is the victim mentality that underlies our approach to racism in our country, as well as to interpersonal relations in general.

Prof. Gates immediately assumed he was the victim of racial profiling. But while the arrest of Prof. Gates was an outrage and a crime, he was NOT a victim of racial profiling in this case. The police were doing what they were supposed to do–responding to a report by a neighbor of a possible robbery in the Gates’ home. But because Prof. Gates believed he was being racially profiled, he became angry and indignant, resulting ultimately in Crowley arresting him. Had Prof. Gates simply thanked Crowley for doing his job, the incident would have quickly been over. But, like almost everyone in modern society, he has been inculcated with the victim mentality regarding racism and responded with anger.

What are the characteristics of a victim mentality? The following are some of them.
1. I am entitled to a life in which no one treats me badly.
2. Life is supposed to be fair.
3. If people are mean to me, it is not because of me; it is their fault.
4. I can’t trust people because I never know when they are going to be mean to me again.
5. Victims are good; bullies/abusers are evil.
6. Since I am the good one and they are bad ones, I don’t have to change, only they do.
7. People who abuse me deserve to be punished.
8. I deserve special treatment because of my victim status.

These beliefs are self-defeating. When you think like a victim, you are more likely to be victimized, so these beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies. Unfortunately, these victim attitudes are being actively promoted by our society today, including our social scientists, who are trying to make the government responsible for providing us a life in which no one abuses, harasses or bullies us in any way. And this is the view that informs our treatment of racism: racists are evil, only racists need to change, and it's the government's responsibility to make racism disappear by punishing all racist feelings and expressions. People today have been led to believe that about the worst thing that can happen to a human being is for someone to say or do something against their race. And one of the greatest fears of people has become being accused of being racist.

The truth is, racial profiling is only a problem when racism also exists. Otherwise it is actually beneficial to everyone (except to the criminals!) For instance, I am a Jew. If it is known that a group of fanatic Jews is carrying out terrorist attacks, I would welcome law enforcement officers profiling Jews, for every time that a Jew gets away with a terrorist attack, it increases the public’s hatred of me and my fellow Jews. In fact, I would plead with the law enforcement agencies, “Please don’t waste time investigating everyone. Please, please, just investigate Jews before more attacks are committed.”

The are at least two reasons racial profiling is a problem only when there is racism:

1. When policemen are racist, they are, indeed, likely to target people for no other reason than that they belong to the race they hate. This harms not only innocent people, but the police as well, because it foments hatred of police officers, and that does not make their jobs any easier.

2. As a reaction to the real problem of racism that has plagued our country, we are trying to overcompensate by treating racism as the greatest crime possible. We tend to equate racism with genocide, as though someone who has negative feelings about another group is as evil as someone who has actually exterminated another race. So we are now trying to eradicate racism by criminalizing all expressions of racism. And racial profiling is one of those expressions that has become a crime. Consequently, when people feel they are being racially profiled, they react with increased outrage, as Prof. Gates did, as though someone is trying to kill their entire group. Their anger causes hostilities to escalate and unwittingly increases the likelihood that the police will arrest them. Had Professor Gates not been so indignant about racism in our society, the incident would have been quickly over.

In a few decades, we have gone from a country that officially condoned racism to one that treats racism as the most horrific of crimes. However, despite our intense efforts to get rid of racism, it still exists, and the Black community in our country is far from being on an equal level with the white majority. Why have we made such little progress in creating racial equality? As i will explain, it’s because we are stuck in the wrong approach to social problems and can't see the better alternative.

Two approaches to social problems

There are two ways of trying to solve social problems. One is the legal approach; the other is the psychological. A legal approach treats the problem like a crime and tries to get rid of it through punishment. One side is the perpetrator and is guilty. The other side is the victim and is innocent. Only the perpetrator is required to change.

The psychological approach involves helping people understand and handle the problems of life on their own. The one who is suffering feels like a victim, and the solution is for the person to take responsibility for their problem and stop thinking and acting like a victim. The suffering person cannot expect others to solve their problems for them.

The legal approach is necessary for dealing with behaviors like rape, theft, arson, and murder. However, it is a terrible way for trying to create positive relations between people, and this is equally true for relations between the races. For that, the psychological approach in needed.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, only one side is being employed, even by the psychological organizations, and that is the legal approach. And that is why we have hit a brick wall in improving race relations. We are trying to use the law to make people get rid of racist feelings. This can never work.

People aren’t going to change their racist attitudes just because a law is passed. If I hate your group for whatever reason, and then the law makes it a crime to have racist attitudes, am I going to think, “Oh, now I like and respect your group so much!” Of course not! Not only will I hate your group even more for getting the government to turn me into a criminal for my views, I will hate the government for trying to force me to like your group the same as my own.

If you are taught that racist feelings are a crime, will that help you get along better with people who express negative feelings about your group? Will you respond in a friendly, calm and rational manner? No! You will respond with outrage, as to a criminal: “You have no right to treat me that way! You are a racist! I will get the authorities against you!” They, in turn, will get angry back at you. They will insist that they are not racists, and try to prove that their negative attitudes toward your group are based on objective reality. They will feel justified in fearing your group because of your anger and because of the possibility that you might call the police on them. And they will have even less respect for you and your group because you look like an idiot when you get angry.

The ironic truth is that laws against racist feelings put a wedge between the races. As long as we consider racist feelings a crime, we will treat each others like criminals for our feelings about each others groups, we will walk on eggshells with each other, and we will never be comfortable with each other's groups.

The psychological approach

The other way of dealing with racism is the psychological approach. It means I have to understand the problems facing me and learn how to deal with them. Wishful thinking is not going to help me. Racism is one of the many unpleasant facts of life, like children’s defiance, unequal paychecks, and angry spouses. People aren’t angels, and it is human nature for people to favor their own group. I can’t expect the government to force everyone to feel the same way about my group as they do of their own. When people harbor negative views of my group, I need to realize this is not abnormal, for I, too, am not completely free of bias. If I want them to improve their attitudes toward my group, I have to be part of the process. I can’t expect laws to do it for me. I can’t get angry with people for being racist and expect them to want to be nice to my group. I can’t disrespect them for being racist and expect them to respect my group in return. I can’t try to get them punished for being racist and expect them not to hate and fear my group.

If I want people to respect my group, I need to show them respect–even when they disrespect my group. If I want them to stop being suspicious of my group, I need to treat them like friends–even when they treat my group like enemies. Eventually they will start thinking, “Maybe that group isn’t so bad after all. Yes, they are different, but they are nice and respectable and I have no reason to hate or fear them.”

Please don’t forget that this blog is in Psychology Today, not Law Enforcement Today. If you are enraged by my views because you insist that members of minority groups should not have to do anything about racism, I totally support your right to your view. But please understand you are taking a law enforcement approach, not psychological one. When we lobby for laws to solve social problems, we are actually declaring the failure of psychology. It means we don’t know how to solve the problem through psychological means; we need the legal system to do it for us. And don’t forget, the police are the muscle of the legal system, and policemen act the way that Officer Crowley did.

You may like the idea of living in a totalitarian police state, but I don’t. My parent’s families experienced it, and that was enough for me.

For those of you interested in the psychological solution to racism, I wrote a detailed manual, The Golden Rule Solution to Racism, that is free on my website and can be accessed on the webpage with my other free manuals: I wrote it with the specific instance of anti-Semitism, so that members of other groups won’t accuse me of not understanding their group, and complaining that I shouldn’t be telling them what to do. But I believe the lessons are universal and can be applied to any group.

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