Now that the Gates-Crowley incident is beginning to fade from prominence, it is time to ask about the takeaway: what should we learn from this "teachable moment"?
Yes, race was involved in the misunderstanding -- but not necessarily racism, on either side. Rather, race is one of the filters or frames through the distortions of which we understand the world and one another. All of us make use of these filters; no one sees the world exactly as it is. It is by no means clear that there even exists a world "exactly as it is."
So the interaction between the professor and the policeman was clouded by their racial difference -- or, more accurately, the differences in understanding that come about through living in the world as white and as black. As has been much discussed, black men are apt, because of their experiences and those of friends and family, to see a white policeman as hostile and threatening. But too often in this national discussion, Officer Crowley's perceptions were taken as "normal" or "unmarked," because he is a white male. Yet white and black, male and female, all experience distortions -- but the white, male ones have been considered "normal" and hence have often been invisible.
So Crowley may have felt a bit of incredulity based on pre-existing stereotypes: What? A black man living in this elegant house in this upscale neighborhood? He'd better have proof! And when Gates, tired and peevish from jet-lag and a cold coming on, remonstrated with him, Crowley might subconsciously have felt that this was what "they" always do: make trouble, confront, talk loudly.
What Crowley heard as "ranting" and "haranguing" could have been simply the way a Harvard professor talks -- discursively. That choice is not based on race, but occupation, status, and class. But Crowley, a member of the working class, might have identified it as "uppity" and inappropriate. As a white woman interviewed about the incident on television put it, when questioned by a policeman, you're supposed to say only "yes, sir" and "no, sir." But if you're a Harvard professor, "yes, sir" and "no, sir" are not the way to make your case: you explain, you expound. And the class listens: it will be on the final.
Gender, another filter that is always with us, figures here like the dog that didn't bark. The fact that both parties were male undoubtedly helped to escalate the confrontation: once it got started, both felt confronted and unwilling to back down. If the men fumbling at Gates' front door had been women, Lucia Whalen might either have understood the scenario as "trying to get into their own house," rather than "possibly breaking and entering" -- again, based on stereotypical perceptions about who commits crimes -- and either not called 911 or reported the situation differently, thereby changing the preconceptions with which Officer Crowley approached the scene. And once the officer and the professor were talking, if one or both had been female, they would have felt less under attack and might have been able to work everything out amicably.
So the series of filters, or frames, or stereotypes that everyone uses to understand (or misunderstand) the world are invaluable to us as cognitive creatures. But at the same time they can, when misapplied, cause all kinds of problems for us -- all of us.
Since members of the dominant group -- white, male, middle-class, and so on -- get to make the interpretations, others have necessarily had to recognize that their filters are particular to them, not the only way, or the only reasonable way, to see things. Members of dominant groups can sometimes come to see things this way, but they are not forced to and so, too often, they don't: they see their filters as totally transparent, their perceptions as "real" perceptions of the "truth." But there is no single truth, very often, when it comes to interpreting human assumptions and interactions.
This is exactly the point Judge Sonia Sotomayor was making that made her Republican white male interrogators go ballistic. How dare she suggest that "empathy" was relevant to a judge's work? How dare she suggest that a "wise Latina" (even assuming there could be such a thing!) might make better decisions than a white male?
To make sure this brown-skinned woman knew whom she was talking to, they proceeded to talk down to her, to explain the law and the work of a judge to her -- as one would to someone who "wasn't too bright," as Karl Rove suggested. Very few of these were people fit to so much as hold Sotomayor's Phi Beta Kappa key, but they were white, they were male, she was not, and they were determined to reinforce and reinstate the official rules. They forced her to disown her position -- again and again -- through humiliation and the threat of stopping her confirmation.
But what she was saying -- that a member of a group, or groups, that saw the world through non-white, non-male filters might therefore of necessity understand the complexity of the law as it applies to a diverse society; that "feelings," the understanding that some people suffered experiences (like driving while black) that others did not -- perfectly explains what happened on Brattle Street, Cambridge, on July 17. And the response of the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee makes the inevitability of that confrontation tragically clear.