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USA Today Spotlights Race in America

ARLINGTON — USA Today, one of the nation’s leading newspapers , brings to the fore the issue and relevance of race in America in the age of Obama.

In today’s article, the paper delves into the complex issue of race and class in New England, which has been in the headlines lately with the New Haven fire fighters who accused the city of reverse racism when the city decided to throw out a test that had mostly whites and a few Hispanics passing, but no blacks.

But a recent incident in which a white police officer arrested a black Harvard professor in his home has captured the nation’s attention even more.

See article below:

Gates arrest reignites debate on race.

 Sgt. James Crowley, an 11-year department veteran, arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. after a woman passing by called police about a possible burglary.
By Steve Senne, AP
Sgt. James Crowley, an 11-year department veteran, arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. after a woman passing by called police about a possible burglary.
“Although, largely through luck and circumstance, I now occupy a position that insulates me from most of the bumps and bruises that the average black man must endure I can recite the usual litany of petty slights that during my 45 years have been directed my way: security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores, white couples who toss me their car keys as I stand outside a restaurant waiting for the valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason. I know what it’s like to have people tell me I can’t do something because of my color, and I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger. I know as well that [my wife] Michelle and I must be continually vigilant against some of the debilitating story lines that our daughters may absorbfrom TV and music and friends and the streets about who the world thinks they are, and what the world imagines they should be.” Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

A photo taken by a neighbor shows Hentry Louis Gates in handcuffs.  The charge, disorderly conduct, was dropped.
Enlarge By B. Carter, AP
A photo taken by a neighbor shows Hentry Louis Gates in handcuffs. The charge, disorderly conduct, was dropped.

It began with a routine tip about a suspected burglary, with a white cop squaring off against a black suspect. Now the president and the rest of the nation are weighing in.

More than a week after prominent Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, the highly charged police action has drawn the country into a national debate about police tactics, race relations and President Obama‘s commentary.

Obama on Friday stood by his assertion that police did not need to arrest Gates. The president said during an interview with ABC that he has “extraordinary respect” for the challenges and hardships that law enforcement officers face every day in their line of work. But at the same time he said he didn’t think the arrest was necessary. Obama said “cooler heads should have prevailed” in the incident.

Friday’s comments from Obama came after he backed off a statement he made the day before that Cambridge police “acted stupidly” during the July 16 incident. He said he never intended to call the officer “stupid” for arresting Gates on a disorderly conduct charge, which was dropped. Crowley, a police academy instructor on the dangers of racial profiling, said earlier in the day that he did nothing wrong and will not apologize to Gates. The professor didn’t speak publicly Thursday.

The Gates story has captured the nation because it has a “perfect storm” of ingredients, says Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida.

The ongoing question of whether the U.S. has moved past racism combined with the fact that Gates actually studies African-American issues — all taking place on the hallowed confines of Harvard — provided for this explosion of interest, Russell-Brown said.

“Many people want to believe that now that we have an African American in the White House, that now we can get past all this race stuff,” said Russell-Brown, who wrote The Color of Crime, a book about race, crime and justice.

Even police appear to be split along racial lines about whether the officer acted appropriately when he responded to a call for a possible burglary at Gates’ home and later determined that the professor merely had trouble getting into his own house.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, called Obama’s remarks “premature.” Jim Pasco, the union’s executive director, said the president “should have waited for all of the facts to unfold.” On the eve of its national convention, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, sided with Obama, saying the police had acted “irrationally.”

“Once Gates was identified as the lawful resident of the house, the (police contact) should have ended,” said Joseph McMillan, the organization’s president. “The department should seek Gates out and offer an apology.”

Gates, 58, has numerous honorary degrees and is considered one of the nation’s foremost authorities on black culture.

“I am astonished that this happened to me; and more importantly I’m astonished that it could happen to any citizen of the United States, no matter what their race,” Gates was quoted Tuesday on The Root website. “I want to do what I can so that every police officer will think twice before engaging in this kind of behavior.”

Races react differently

Edwin Dorn, a former dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and author of Rules and Racial Equality, said the magnitude of the Gates arrest can be understood through the reactions from blacks and whites.

“If one conducts a survey, one will find that overwhelmingly blacks feel that this was an example of something that is part of their DNA — police discrimination, oppression, racial profiling. It’s likely that you’ll find a much larger percentage of whites believing, just instantly, that it was Gates who behaved intemperately,” Dorn said. “It’s an example of how the races still view things very differently.”

He said whites are far more likely than blacks to believe that police officers arriving at their doorstep are likely to do the right thing. Far from the case, Dorn said, for blacks.

“From an African-American perspective, what it says is, ‘If it happens to a guy like … Gates, just imagine what happens on darkened streets with people who are not prominent,” Dorn said.

Crowley has shown no sign of backing down. He has gotten a flood of support and emotional posts on law enforcement websites, including PoliceLink. The officer is himself an icon of sorts in the Boston area: 16 years ago, he tried to save dying Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when the basketball player crumbled on a practice court with heart problems.

“I wasn’t working on Reggie Lewis the basketball star. I wasn’t working on a black man. I was working on another human being,” Crowley, then a Brandeis University police officer, told the Boston Herald at the time.

This week the 42-year-old father of three told the Herald, “I just have nothing to apologize for” in the Gates incident. “It will never happen.”

There was no hint of the controversy that would follow when the sergeant responded to a routine call to investigate a possible noon-hour burglary in Cambridge.

A female caller said two black men with backpacks were on the porch of a home on Ware Street. One of them, she said, was wedging his shoulder into the door as if “he was trying to force entry,” according to a police report.

Gates had just returned from an extended trip out of the country. The other man, the professor’s driver, was apparently assisting Gates, who was having trouble entering the house.

According to the police report, Gates already was in the house when Crowley arrived. Crowley then asked Gates to step outside because the officer was investigating a possible burglary.

The remark, according to the report, set off a volatile exchange that led to Gates’ arrest. Crowley said Gates repeatedly referred to him as a “racist” police officer. At one point, according to the report, Crowley said an enraged Gates told him that he “had no idea who I was messing with and that I had not heard the last of it.”

Crowley said Gates eventually provided him with a Harvard University identification card and that the officer was “led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence.” But the tense verbal exchange continued, with Gates following Crowley to the front porch where, according to the report, the professor “continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias.”

Crowley said Gates was arrested after ignoring the officer’s warning that he was “becoming disorderly.”

In a televised news conference Thursday, Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas stood by the sergeant’s actions and his department.

Haas, who is white, described Crowley as a “stellar” member of the department.

“I don’t believe Sgt. Crowley acted with any racial motivation at all,” Haas said, adding that Obama’s remarks “really stunned” the department.

Nevertheless, Haas said a special panel would be assembled to investigate the incident.

Obama, who gave the controversy new prominence during a prime-time news conference Wednesday, described Gates as a personal friend. The president is no stranger himself to issues of racial profiling. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he described several such instances from his own past.

“I know what it’s like to have people tell me I can’t do something because of my color, and I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger,” Obama wrote.

Clarifying Obama’s remarks

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday that the president’s remarks the night before were misinterpreted.

“Let me be clear, he was not calling the officer stupid,” Gibbs said. He said Obama felt that “at a certain point, the situation got far out of hand” at Gates’ home.

Analysts say the dispute has riveted much of America because it touches some of the deepest differences in race relations.

Whites “don’t live with the daily knowledge that their children may be arbitrarily subjected to police brutality or profiling,” said Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University sociology professor and author of more than a dozen books about African Americans, race and culture.

“Black and Latino people tell their children if they dream of insulting a police officer, they’d better wake up,” Dyson says. “The consequences can be death.”

David Harris, law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the book Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work, said the Gates case resonates because it shows that minorities, regardless of education, status or age, can be made to feel vulnerable.

“It’s a universal part of the black American experience and nothing protects you from it,” he says. “You can achieve the American dream in every facet of your life, and it can still happen to you.”

Crowley is not a likely candidate for such abuse, however. He has taught a class on racial profiling for five years at the Lowell Police Academy.

Academy Director Thomas Fleming says Crowley is a “good role model” who was hand-picked for the job by former police commissioner Ronny Watson, who is black.

In the class, Crowley teaches officers not to single people out based on their ethnicity.

The Boston-Cambridge area has a history of racial tension, dating to the 1970s, when court-mandated busing led to violence as whites threw rocks and bricks at buses carrying black students.

Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, says race relations have calmed since then, but that issues, such as racial profiling and black representation in city government, still persist.

Cambridge, despite being known as a progressive enclave, is not immune. Cofield says there have been several instances on Harvard University‘s campus in which black students and professors have been stopped or questioned by police unfairly.

Debate over Gates’ treatment by police was raging well before Obama’s comments. By Thursday morning, the issue was dominating television news programs.

In some quarters, the discussion saw criminal justice analysts taking a hard line against the police, while others said the incident underscored the need for a new national discussion of race relations in America.

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, who is black, said racial disputes involving police always generate intense reaction because they tear at old social wounds that have never healed.

“It’s always a sore spot,” he said.

Contributing: Mimi Hall; the Associated Press

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