Thursday, November 12, 2009

Leon Lashley and the Gates Arrest

Over the past few years I have been working with Dan O'Flaherty on the manner in which racial stereotypes condition behavior in interactions between strangers. Our focus has been on interactions involving criminal offenders, victims, witnesses and law enforcement officials. I wrote down the following thoughts in July of this year, after watching a short television segment on the Gates arrest. 

In a now famous photograph depicting Henry Louis Gates in handcuffs outside his Cambridge residence, there is a black police officer standing prominently in the foreground. The officer, Sergeant Leon Lashley, recently defended the actions of his colleague James Crowley in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, maintaining that the arrest of Gates was warranted under the circumstances. But Lashley also made the following conjecture: “Would it have been different if I had shown up first? I think it probably would have been different.” When asked to elaborate, he said simply “black man to black man, it probably would have been different.”

I suspect that most of us would agree with Lashley that the event would have played out differently had he been the first officer on the scene, although we might disagree about the reasons for this. Some might argue that Lashley would have been quicker to recognize that Gates was an educated professional in his own home rather than a legitimate burglary suspect. Accordingly, he may have shown him greater courtesy and respect, quickly verified his identification, and left the scene without a fuss.

But even if Lashley had acted in every respect exactly as Crowley did, events would probably have developed quite differently, because there would have been less uncertainty in the mind of Gates regarding the officer’s motives. Just as Crowley could not immediately know whether Gates was the homeowner or a burglar, Gates could not know whether or not Crowley’s behavior was racially motivated. He may have been mistaken in his belief that he was dealing with a racist cop, but the suspicion itself was not without empirical foundation. As long as there are white officers who take particular satisfaction in intimidating and arresting black suspects, such uncertainties will remain widespread.

This problem is pervasive when communication between strangers occurs across racial lines in America. If a white store clerk or parking attendant is rude to a white customer, the latter is likely to attribute it to an abrasive personality or a bad mood. If the customer is black, however, there is the additional suspicion that the behavior is motivated by racial animosity. The same action can be given different interpretations and meanings that depend crucially on the racial identities of the transacting parties.

As a result, equal treatment need not result in equal outcomes. Even if a white police officer behaves in exactly the same way towards all suspects, regardless of race, he will be viewed and treated in a manner that is not similarly neutral. Black men who suspect his motives may react with an abundance of caution, taking elaborate steps to avoid being seen as provocative. Or they may react, as Gates did, with anger and outrage. In either case, the reaction will be race-contingent, even if the officer’s behavior is not.

There is a lesson to be learned here as far as the training of police is concerned. Striving towards the goal of equal treatment may not be adequate under current conditions because the same cues can have different, race-contingent interpretations. Officers should be alert to this possibility, and perhaps respond by being especially courteous in interactions that cross racial lines. The costs of doing so would appear to be small relative to the potential benefits.

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