The Gates Case: What Went Wrong

How did Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley walk away with such different interpretations on the incident?

Posted:
 
gates
Getty Images

Henry Louis Gates Jr. felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he looked across the threshold of his home at Sgt. James Crowley. Looking back at Gates, Crowley worried about making it home safely to his wife and three children.

Fear was the only thing the white police officer and black scholar had in common. Soon their many differences would collide, exploding into a colossal misunderstanding.

How could things go so wrong? How could two by all accounts decent men start a fire that drew comparisons to the O.J. Simpson case and knocked President Barack Obama off his racial tightrope?

Part of the answer lies in the truth seen through each man's eyes during the episode, which ended with one of the most influential men in America charged with disorderly conduct.

If this really is to become a "teachable moment," as Obama hopes, then we have to examine what they saw, according to their public statements — and why they saw it that way.

___

It's early afternoon on Ware Street in Cambridge, Mass., a few blocks from the campus of Harvard University. Gates and his car service driver, a large black man, are trying to force open Gates' jammed front door. Lucia Whalen, a 40-year-old white woman who works up the street at the Harvard alumni magazine, is passing by and calls 911.

According to Crowley's police report, he arrived to find Whalen standing on the sidewalk in front of the home. She told Crowley that "she observed what appeared to be two black men with backpacks on the porch ... her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door," the report says.

No one is blaming Whalen, who has not spoken publicly since the story broke.

"It wasn't her fault," Gates said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Comments
The Root encourages respectful debate and dialogue in our commenting community. To improve the commenting experience for all our readers we will be experimenting with some new formats over the next few weeks. During this transition period the comments section will be unavailable to users.

We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your continued support of The Root.

While we are experimenting, please feel free to leave feedback below about your past experiences commenting at The Root.