Disrespect and Fear – and a Chance to Learn

I might have said “stupid” myself — and I am not sure it would have been incorrect. But the national dialogue about Gate’s arrest and Obama’s response has given us a rare chance to slow down and reflect on our automatic reactions and develop greater racial intelligence.

The police have a difficult and dangerous job, and they are sensitive to signs of disrespect for reasons not hard to figure out. Their world splits into “good guys” and “bad guys,” those who obey the law and need protection and those who don’t. Usually they work for the good guys, of course, but it isn’t always easy to discriminate who is who, especially since “we” ourselves shift around so much. Respect is one of those crude signs that help them detect the difference, but it is also something they may feel entitled to expect and demand under all circumstances, especially in a job that often feels under-appreciated if not actively maligned.

That seems to be the case with Sgt. Crowley. Not a rogue cop, he seems a decent guy, doing his job, much like other cops on beats like his. For him, the incident seems to have been routine. And that would have been that if it hadn’t been for the fact that Prof. Gates was, well, Prof Gates.

The Times today, surveying the field, did a good job of and pointing out how much judgment and discretion is involved in such situations, and it is clear that many other cops would not have responded as Crowley did – but also many would have. And, of course, most of them have now rallied around one of their own who is under attack. (See As Officers Face Heated Words, Their Tactics Vary)

On the other hand, we can also understand how Prof. Gates got riled up trying to get into his own home after a long trip. No doubt, he too felt thwarted and disrespected. And, to be sure, both of them felt afraid, each not only of the unknown other but finding themselves facing off across our country’s racial divide, with little to go on but their own stereotypes.

But, rather than escalating and speeding up, the incident, fortunately, has been slowed down. It has given us all a chance to reflect on what we don’t know we know about race.

The Times’ survey helps to make clear that while in the many police have developed thoughtful strategies to deal with such situations, many rely on crude rules or gut reactions. Many could use help in gaining a better understanding of the psychological dimensions of such encounters, and there are a number of policemen and women who could provide it.

The ordinary citizen could also be more thoughtful about the fear and stress that the police are under when faced with ambiguous and potentially threatening situations. More aware of that, they might be able to refrain from resentful provocations.

Even Obama could learn – and apparently has. Modifying his earlier stance that he had “no more to say” on the subject, he has helped us all take the events apart and learn about our own reactions. That’s what we need: more racial intelligence.