Testosterone Fueled Clash In Cambridge

July 28, 2009|By Thomas F. Schaller

The spat between Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. and Cambridge police officer James Crowley quickly escalated into the latest national conversation on race in America. But the more I read about and reflect upon what happened, the conflict seems less the result of an asymmetry in the melanin levels of the two men than of unusually high levels - on that day, on that porch - of testosterone.

Let's start with Professor Gates. Based on his own statements in the days following the incident, we learned that he had just returned, after a one-day stopover in New York, from a trip to China. He had literally just flown halfway around the world and was likely jet-lagged. He also told syndicated columnist Maureen Dowd that a week later he was still battling a cold he picked up in China, which means he was sick when he arrived stateside.

As if all of that were not reason to be on edge, Mr. Gates was further aggravated by a front door lock that was jammed - at best because of a malfunction, at worse because a burglar had damaged it during a robbery while the professor was traveling.

Under such circumstances, had the world's sweetest 10-year-old African-American Girl Scout strolled up that moment peddling cookies, Mr. Gates probably wouldn't have been in the mood to deal with her. He probably wanted to get inside, drop his bags, take a long shower, sort through his mail and sleep until noon the next day.

Instead, he found himself dealing with a white police officer responding to a call from some unknown local who, he presumed (incorrectly, as it turns out), witnessed two black men on his porch and concluded they must be criminals.

As for Sergeant Crowley - an officer who specializes in teaching his peers how to guard against engaging in racial profiling on the job - he was called to the house for a routine but nontrivial report of breaking-and-entering, only to find himself in an escalating, town-gown spat with a powerful black professor who essentially accuses him of racism in front of a black colleague also on the scene.

Maybe this clash was ignited by race, but it seems that gender provided the highly combustible base fuel. At its core, the dispute featured two men fighting to establish and assert their respective authorities. And heaven help us all when two men - whatever their race - reach the point where they believe their pride and honor is being called into question.

Try this little thought experiment: Imagine that the officer responding to the call had been a black woman who arrived to find a white female Harvard professor of women's studies inside the house. I'm betting the two women would most likely have done more listening than shouting, and the incident would have concluded not with an arrest but the female professor thanking the officers for their diligence and sending them back to their patrol calls on a hot summer afternoon with a couple of bottles of cold water from the fridge.

Instead, a nation that should have spent the past week or two debating the state of American health care was consumed by a national controversy so inflammatory that the usually pitch-perfect president of the United States got burned by foolishly remarking that the Cambridge police officer acted "stupidly." Which only goes to prove that even the highest authority in the land - also a man, mind you - can forget his boundaries and spout off unnecessarily when he ought to just remain quiet.

President Barack Obama (after wisely consulting with the first lady, it should be noted) quickly reversed course, reaching out by phone to both the police sergeant some were rushing to call a racist and the professor-friend others were rushing to call an uppity black Harvard snob.

Apparently, the three men may soon meet at the White House to chat over a few beers. Let's hope the beers are cold enough to chill the hot tempers of three men in positions of authority who ought to know by now that they should draw a long breath before closing their minds and opening their mouths.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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