An Equal and Opposite Overreaction

Illustration for article titled An Equal and Opposite Overreaction

Lawd, have muh-cy, we are going down that road again.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. was right when he said that his nasty run-in with the Cambridge police would trigger a “racial narrative.” It’s the same one that has been unreeled since the videotaped beating of Rodney King, the trial of O.J. Simpson and the shooting death of Amadou Diallo.


Black man vs. white cops. A “black interpretation” vs. a “white interpretation.” Dialogue. Promises to learn from the clash.

But we never do, and every time a new incident springs into the headlines, we start all over again.

And that’s what we’ll do this time. As his attempt to pull back from his clumsily worded initial remarks about the incident made clear, even the president of the United States can get caught up in the whirlpool. His claim that the cops had acted “stupidly” by arresting Gates was a standard part of the “black interpretation” of these sorts of events. As were most of the comments posted on The Root by both blacks and whites. Blacks seemed to side with Gates and criticize the police for overstepping their authority and harboring racial stereotypes. Whites backed the cops and excoriated Gates for mouthing off instead of quietly complying with the cops’ instructions.

Neither side—including the president, who badly misstated the agreed upon facts about the incident—knew what they were talking about. Both sides were more interested in making a point than they were in finding out what actually happened. We were, collectively, off to the races.

I can understand that. Like most of my black male friends, I’ve had my share of confrontations with overbearing cops. During the 1970s, when I lived in Montclair, N.J., a leafy—and thoroughly integrated—New York City suburb, I was thrown up against a police car and slapped in handcuffs one evening by two white officers—simply for being black in an area where there had been some burglaries.

Once the cops established that I was a journalist for a newsmagazine, they apologized and released me, and I decided not to press the issue. I should have filed a complaint and insisted that it be acted on. That incident has, inevitably, colored my view of the cops ever since. I don’t trust them. I don’t like them. And my first instinct when I encounter them is to bristle.


That’s why I support Gates and his version of what happened at his home when the cops showed up. He’s not only a black man like me, he’s been a friend for decades, and I love him. And if there’s one thing I know for certain from my years as a reporter, it’s that cops lie all the time.

But when we step back a bit and consider what Skip and the cops might have known when this incident started, it might help us to understand how it escalated into such a mess. What we had here was a massive failure of communication because of the racial narratives that run in our heads. Once these stories get going, we’re all doomed to playing our assigned role, and there’s no escaping the consequences.


All Skip knew when he saw the cop at his door was that there was a cop asking him questions. He didn’t know that the cop was there to investigate a report of a possible burglary. Had it been me, I’d have reacted the same way Skip did under the circumstances.

I would have been miffed that a cop was at my door demanding to know what I was doing inside my own home. I would know that I hadn’t done anything that would justify the cop’s presence and aggressive questioning. The black version of the racial narrative about white cops and black men would have begun in my head. 


And what about the white cop? All he knew was that there had been a report of a burglary. He didn’t know who lived in the house. When the cop encountered a black man at the door, a skeptical, even angry, black man demanding to know why he needed to prove that he had the right to be inside his own home, the white version of that racial narrative about black men and white cops may have started.

And once it got started, there was no stopping it. Not for Skip. Not for the cop. Not for the millions of blacks and whites, including President Barack Obama and me, who have been reacting to it ever since. We’re lucky that no one was seriously injured or killed in the clash of interpretation.


That’s why I have so little hope that this will prove to be what Obama calls a “teachable” moment, in which we all learn something that improves the state of race relations. The racial narrative, despite all the changes we’ve made, is so stubbornly embedded in all our psyches that it prevents us from seeing clearly. The ugly clash at Skip Gates’ home, if anything, has made the myths even stronger. The next time an event like this gets into the news, we’ll go through the cycle all over again. 

Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.

is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.