Early public opinion polls seemed to indicate that the public blamed Professor Henry Gates more than Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley for their high-profile incident in Boston. I found this very curious because you would think the general distrust of the police and sympathy for Gates getting arrested in his own home would shift the blame to Crowley. Guess again.
So I asked my barber, who has had his own run-ins with the cops, which side he was taking. To my surprise, he also sided with the police officer. This, in spite of his acknowledgment that Gates committed no crime and the officer not having any justifiable reason to arrest him (which was borne out by the Cambridge Police department immediately dropping all charges against Gates).
Then I realized that, like most polls, the answers depend on how you ask the question. My barber explained that he sided with the police officer because he thought Gates got what was coming to him by challenging the cop, which he thought was utterly idiotic. In other words, his interpretation of the question was “who acted more stupidly” in this incident, and he knew only one of the participants had the power to arrest the other.
So this week CNN published its own poll, specifically asking who acted “stupidly”: Gates, Crowley, and President Obama. In its reporting, the Boston Globe botched its reporting of the survey results, saying that “58 percent of whites surveyed blamed Gates for the confrontation, 59 percent of blacks faulted Crowley”. Not true. If you look at the survey, it shows that 59% of blacks think Crowley acted stupidly and 58% of whites think that Gates acted stupidly. But the “blame” question is clearly different and more complicated to answer than the actual survey “stupidly” question. Even 44% of blacks think Gates acted stupidly.
When the survey goes on to ask who the public “sympathizes with more”, this is where the answers divide along racial lines. Blacks side with Gates 61% to 19% versus whites, who side with Crowley 45% to 29%. The African American answer is no surprise, but I think caucasian answer is illuminating. Even though 58% of whites think Gates acted stupidly and 58% think Crowley did not act stupidly, 29% still sided with Gates and another 26% did not side with Crowley.
I think the “teachable moment” here has less to do with race relations than it does the public’s attitude toward law enforcement. We would all acknowledge that being a police officer is one of the toughest jobs around and that they take more than their fair share of verbal abuse on a daily basis, however like any other profession, they have their share of “bad apples”. I don’t think Crowley is a bad apple, but when a significant percentage of white America sides with an African American for speaking out even though they think it was a stupid idea, that tells me there are more bad apples than the nation’s local police departments care to admit.