A Harvard Professor's Arrest Leads to a Useful White House Conversation

Saturday, August 1, 2009

THE RACIAL DISPUTE that resulted from the contentious July 16 arrest in Cambridge, Mass., of a highly regarded African American Harvard professor by a highly regarded white police officer may have started to mend Thursday over beers at the White House. Just off the Rose Garden, President Obama, Vice President Biden, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley capped two weeks of wrenching debate. We hope the conversation they fostered will continue.

The president did the right thing by inviting the two men over for a beer to cool the controversy that began with a report of a potential burglary by two men at Mr. Gates's home. As it turned out, it was Mr. Gates and his driver returning from the airport and trying to get in through the front door after his key wouldn't work. Sgt. Crowley arrived. What exactly happened next between the two men remains in dispute, but it resulted in Mr. Gates being led away from his own home in handcuffs. The charges of disorderly conduct were later dropped, but not before the incident exposed long-simmering tensions between blacks and law enforcement, and overall concerns about racial profiling. Mr. Obama unintentionally inflamed the discussion when he remarked that the police "acted stupidly."

What's heartening is that the heated rhetoric has given way to positive talk about moving forward. It is "incumbent upon Sergeant Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us to foster greater sympathy among the American public for the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand," Mr. Gates wrote after the meeting in an essay on TheRoot.com. (The Web site, which Mr. Gates helped to found, is owned by The Washington Post Co.) Sgt. Crowley said that he and the professor have different perspectives "and have agreed that both perspectives should be addressed in an effort to provide a constructive outcome to the events of the past month."

The common denominator here is understanding. The public needs to become more familiar with police work and appreciate the dangers inherent in it. And law enforcement must appreciate the wariness of a population that feels singled out and mistreated. That some police departments, including the District's, are reassessing their diversity and racial profiling curricula is a positive result of the Gates-Crowley confrontation. Another is that Sgt. Crowley and Mr. Gates plan to meet again to keep talking. Only good can come of this.

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