A Teachable Moment: Pride and Prejudice

08/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are two separate but related, aspects to the confrontation between Harvard professor, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates and Cambridge police officer, James "Jim" Crowley last week. On one hand, there is the very real -- and vile -- issue of police profiling, which far too many African-American and Latino men have experienced. On the other hand, there is the pride and prejudice of both men.

Pride and prejudice, it seems, had more to do with their confrontation than racial profiling.

Police profiling based literally on skin color is deeply ingrained in our culture, dating back to 1667 when, fearing slave revolts, the British Parliament enacted laws called Black Codes to "regulate" black people on British plantations in the New World. Old habits die hard and consciously or unconsciously the idea that people of color -- especially men of color -- are suspect, was woven in the fabric of our country and remains to this day.

The Black Codes eventually became known as Slave Codes in the American South and in effect, they criminalized Africans Americans who tried to act on their own behalf or in their own defense. Slave Codes, like the Black Codes that preceded them, made the mistreatment and even the murder of African Americans legal. As recently as the 20th century, the United States would not pass anti-lynching laws. African American soldiers returning from World War I were lynched in their uniforms, but President Woodrow Wilson of "make the world safe for democracy" fame would not support an anti-lynching law.

Jim Crow, States Rights, Home Rule, and lynching -- ironically all designed to legally place black people outside the protection of the law -- had their roots in the Black Codes of 1667 -- and have left us a shameful, indelible legacy where even now black people are too often assumed guilty until proven innocent. This legacy has damaged all Americans, whether they are enlightened professors or enlightened police officers.

The other issue at the heart of the confrontation between professor Gates and police officer Crowley is pride.

When I first heard about Gates' encounter with Crowley, I thought of a PBS series around ten years ago that featured Gates. At one reflective moment during the program, he spoke about the West Virginia town where he grew up and said that when he sees young African American men hanging out on the corners there today, they seem to him as different as if they were "from Mars." He went on to say that, in contrast, his world was now that of Harvard Yard.

I remember cringing when he made the comment about the young men seeming to him as if they were "from Mars" -- because, as one of my friends aptly put it, I couldn't imagine saying that about any fellow human being. We are all human, after all, and none of us knows the journey another has traveled. "There but for the grace of God go I," as the expression goes. Class prejudice among African Americans is real.

Gates' remarks about both the young men in West Virginia and his "world" of Harvard Yard were revealing.

In another segment of the program, professor Gates was in Ethiopia at the site where the Arc of the Covenant is reputed to be. The arc is considered to be so sacred that it is protected by a holy man and only he can see it. A guard stands outside. During the segment, Gates told the guard (or instructed his translator to tell him) that he was "Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard," as if that would make a difference to the guard. As interpreted by Gates' translator, the guard was polite in explaining that even so, he couldn't let the professor enter. The guard as translated in the subtitles, however, said, "He might be an important person where he is from, but..." I cannot remember the rest, but it was clear that the guard was not impressed.

Professor Gates perceives himself as an exceptional person and deservedly so. Officer Crowley, an 11 year veteran and role model to younger officers who was selected by his African American commissioner to teach racial sensitivity to police officers, no doubt, perceives himself as an exception to the stereotype of a racist cop and deservedly so. Each man expected the other to pay deference to the other's exceptionality. Gates expected Crowley to recognize who he was -- and Crowley expected Gates to recognize his authority as an officer of the law.

Gates "felt" like a black man being profiled. Crowley did not diffuse the situation but instead asserted his authority. Their confrontation was a clash of egos in which pride and prejudice -- on both sides -- came into play.

This is indeed a teachable moment for Gates, Crowley, President Obama and each of us.