To the Teacher:
President Obama hopes that the incident between police officer James Crowley and scholar Henry Louis Gates—and Obama's involvement in it—"ends up being what's called a teachable moment..."
Naturally, we agree, but that raises, as always, two questions: 1) What and how do we decide to teach? 2) What and how do we aim to help students learn?
The following readings, discussion questions, and student activities reflect our answer to those questions. In brief, we suggest:
- close examination of a controversial issue through an active learning, inquiry-oriented, critical thinking approach from multiple perspectives
- examination of students' own (and other peoples') racial attitudes and predispositions
- becoming aware of the perils of jumping to conclusions and the importance of withholding judgment on disputed matters
- recognizing the significance of differences among factual, inferential and judgmental statements through careful reading and listening, question—asking and answering, investigation of what we don't know acting as citizens
You might ask the full class the questions following each reading. Or you might consider the fish bowl technique described in "Engaging Your Class Through Groupwork" in the high school section of TeachableMoment. This activity promotes active learning by encouraging the full class to listen carefully to what others say -an exercise that might be especially useful in considering the Gates-Crowley confrontation.
See the same site for materials on related matters: "Teaching on Controversial Issues," "Thinking Is Questioning," "Presidential Election 2008: The Issue of Race," and "A More Perfect Union: Examining Senator Obama's Speech," which deals with racial issues.
Student Reading 1:
Who said what and what happened at 17 Ware Street?
Agreement on certain facts
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., 58, an African-American Harvard professor, returned to the United States on July 16 from a trip to China after a 14-hour flight and with a bronchial infection. He took a cab to his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but could not get in because the door was jammed. The cab driver came to help and together they worked to force the door open.
Lucia Whalen, a woman who works on the block, called the police on behalf of an older woman who lives on the street and had seen the two men forcing their way into the house. On the police recording, Whalen said, "They kind of had to barge in, and they broke the screen door and they finally got in." She also said she had seen two suitcases on the porch. The dispatcher asked if she thought the men were breaking into the house. "I don't know," Whalen said, "because I have no idea." Were the men white, black or Hispanic, the dispatcher asked. "One looked kind of Hispanic, but I'm not really sure," she answered.
She stayed at the scene until a white officer, Sgt. James Crowley, 42, of the Cambridge Police Department, arrived a few minutes later. After the officer met Dr. Gates, he radioed that he was with a man who "says he resides here." He described the man as "uncooperative" and asked for backup. Additional officers arrived shortly.
There is agreement on these facts as well as that Dr. Gates is a prominent African-American history scholar and has taught at Harvard University for nearly 20 years and Sgt. Crowley lives in Cambridge and has been a trainer for the police department in racial profiling.
But there is not agreement about exactly what happened and what was said between Gates and Crowley before the professor was arrested on disorderly conduct charges. Gates was handcuffed, brought to police headquarters, then released after a few hours on his own recognizance. A few days later, police dropped charges against him. (New York Times, 7/27/09 and 7/28/09)
Crowley said that Lucia Whalen had told him she had seen "what appeared to be two black males with backpacks" on the porch of the house." But Whalen's lawyer, Wendy Murphy, said that her client "didn't speak to Sergeant Crowley at the scene except to say, 'I'm the one who called.' She never used the word black and never said the word backpacks to anyone."
Crowley said that when he arrived he asked for identification, but Gates, at first, refused to provide it. Then the professor showed the officer his Harvard ID card, which did not provide his home address to prove he lived at 17 Ware Street. "From the time he opened the door it seemed that he was very upset, very put off that I was there in the first place," the sergeant told radio station WEEI. "Not just what he said, but the tone in which he said it, just seemed very peculiar—even more so now that I know how educated he is."
Crowley said he asked Gates to come outside and identify himself, but that he refused. In his police report, the sergeant said he told Dr. Gates that he was investigating a possible break-in, and Gates responded, "Why, because I'm a black man and you're a white police officer?" According to Crowley, the professor accused him of being a racist, and told him, "I'll speak with your mama outside," which the professor denies saying. Eventually, Gates followed Crowley outside.
"He was arrested after following me outside the house," Crowley told the radio station, "continuing the tirade even after being warned multiple times—probably more times than the average person would have gotten...The professor at any point in time could have resolved the issue by quieting down and/or by going back in the house."
According to Gates, he showed photo ID to Crowley, but the officer seemed not to believe that he lived in his house. Gates also charged that Crowley repeatedly refused to give his name and badge number. (The officer says that he told Gates his name several times.) Gates also wrote in an e-mail message to the New York Times, "I most certainly don't consider myself above the law, and am profoundly grateful for all of the services performed by the police. But I do not believe that standing up for my rights as a citizen should be against the law."
Commenting on Crowley's repeated refusal to apologize for his behavior, Gates wrote, "I think that Sergeant Crowley has backed himself in a very tight corner, and I think that is most unfortunate. My offer to listen to a heartfelt and credible apology is a sincere one, and continues to stand." (New York Times, 7/24/09, 7/27/09 and 7/28/09)
For discussion and/or a fish bowl
1. What questions do students have about the reading? Can they be answered? If so, how? If not, why not?
2. Why did Lucia Whalen call 911?
3. Why did an argument occur between the officer and the professor? If you think you can answer this question, what facts support your answer? What inferences support your answer? What is the difference between factual and inferential statements?
4. Why did Sergeant Crowley arrest Dr. Gates? If you think you can answer this question, what facts support your answer? What inferences? If you can't answer the question, why can't you?
5. How would you explain the differences in the accounts given by Crowley and Whalen? Between Crowley and Gates?
6. What do you know about Sergeant Crowley? Dr. Gates? How do you know? What don't you know that might be important before making a judgment on what happened between them?
7. What other significant matters about the encounter between the officer and the professor do you not know? Why not?
8. What problems might there be about the following questions or any possible answers to them: Why was Dr. Gates angry at the officer? Is Sergeant Crowley a racist? Should either of the two men apologize to the other? Why or why not?
Student Reading 2:
President Obama's role in the controversy
The president's initial remarks
Asked by a reporter at his press conference on July 22 to comment on what the Gates-Crowley episode said "about race relations in America," President Obama said:
"Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don't know all the facts. What's been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house. There was a report called in to the police station that there might be a burglary taking place...They go investigate...
"My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in the house. The police officer comes in. I'm sure there's some exchange of words. But my understanding is...that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house and, at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.
"Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact...
"That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. And yet the fact of the matter...is that, you know, this still haunts us."
The president's later remarks
It was the words "the Cambridge police acted stupidly" that more than anything else generated a great deal of media commentary and led to the president's issuing a further statement two days later:
"I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I've heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.
"My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked to be resolved. The fact that it has generated so much attention, I think, is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America. And, you know, so to the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate...
"My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment, where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations, we all be a little more reflective, in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity."
The president called Sergeant Crowley, who suggested that he and Dr. Gates come to the White House to share a beer with the president, Obama agreed, and then called the professor, who accepted the invitation.
For discussion and/or a fish bowl
1. What questions do students have about the reading? Can they be answered? If so, how? If not, why not?
2. Study the first two paragraphs of President Obama's initial statement, from his press conference. What comments do you regard as factually accurate? Why? Which, if any, do you regard as factually inaccurate? Why?
3. In the third paragraph, the president makes three points. Which do you agree with? Disagree with? Why?
4. What, if anything, do you know of the "long history" the president refers to in his third point? If you wanted to learn more, how would you go about doing so?
5. When the president speaks of "incredible progress that's been made," what is he referring to? When he says "this still haunts us," what is he referring to? How do you know that's what he means?
6. Have African-Americans and Latinos been stopped "disproportionately" by law enforcement? How do you know? If you need to learn more, how would you find out?
7. Why do you suppose the president issued a further statement two days later? Is this second statement significantly different from his first? If so, in what specific respects? If not, why not?
8. When the president refers to the event's producing "a teachable moment," what do you understand him to mean? What does he think we need to learn? Do you agree? Why or why not? Are there other things about race that we need to learn? What? Why?
Student Reading 3:
What is "institutional racism"?
In the days after the Gates-Crowley confrontation became public, the New York Times interviewed police officers and others in a number of cities about the confrontation and similar experiences they'd had themselves.
The Times asked about the remark the police report alleged that Gates made, "I'll speak with your mama outside." (Gates denied the remark.) Several said "they tried to ignore such remarks." A white Los Angeles officer said that had "recently confronted a [black] woman walking in the middle of the street and asked her to step out of traffic. She refused and became belligerent, using a string of four-letter words and ethnic epithets. He said he wrote the woman a ticket and went on his way."
The Times quoted Al Vivian, a diversity consultant in Atlanta who is black: "It is unwise for anyone of any race to raise their voice to a law enforcement officers," Vivian said. "But the result at the end of the day is this was a man who violated no law, was in his own house, who is the top academic star at the top academic school in the nation, and he was still taken away and arrested." Vivian told the Times that he himself had been unfairly stopped by the police in the past, "but that he lived by 'an unwritten code' for dealing with these incidents. And Dr. Gates certainly did not obey the code, he said. Quiet politeness is rule No. 1 in surviving an incident of racial profiling, he said. So is the frequent use of the word, 'sir.'"
Wayne Martin, an official at the Atlanta Housing Authority, who is black, told the Times: "It seems to me that Dr. Gates was simply arrested for being upset, and he was arrested for being upset because he's a black man." Martin changed his Facebook status to: "Wayne Martin is wondering when it became illegal to be angry at a law enforcement official."
Michael J. Palladino, the white president of the Detectives Endowment Association in New York, disagreed, saying that officers should not tolerate disrespect on the street. "We pay these officers to risk their lives every day," Palladino said. "We're taught that officers should have a thicker skin and be a little immune to some comments. But not to the point where you are abused in public. You don't get paid to be publicly abused. There are laws that protect against that.'" (7/25/09)
Commissioner Robert Haas of the Cambridge Police Department, who is white, said he would convene a panel to investigate the Gates-Crowley incident. He said his officers were "deeply pained" by President Obama's press conference comments and that Sergeant Crowley had followed protocol.
Keith Horton, a sports and entertainment lawyer in Chicago, who is black, said, "No matter how much education you have as a person of color, you still can't escape institutional racism. That's what the issue is to me."
The Times also interviewed Sabine Charles, a white cardiologist from Chicago who is married to a black man. Charles said that she could not count how many times people had interrupted her and her husband over the years to ask her "Is this man bothering you?"
For discussion and/or a fish bowl
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What comments do students have about any of the quotes?
3. What is the "unwritten code" that Al Vivian refers to? Are there any other rules that you know of? Have you ever made use of the code? If so, how? Have you ever observed someone else make use of it? If so, how?
4. How do you explain the question Sabine Charles has been asked so many times by strangers?
5. How do you define "institutional racism"? Is the "unwritten code" evidence of "institutional racism"?
6. Is Gates' arrest and handcuffing an example of institutional racism? Why? According to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, 40% of the people in jail in 2008 were black and 20% were Latino. Black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, Hispanic males have a 17% chance, while whites have a 6% chance. (www.sentencingproject.org). Do such statistics indicate institutional racism in the criminal justice system? Why or why not? If you wanted to learn more, how might you find out?
7. Is there evidence of racism in other American institutions? How do you know? How might you find out more about institutional racism?
Write a well-developed paper on one of the following subjects:
1. Thinking critically about the Gates-Crowley confrontation
2. A personal experience with racism
3. Progress on race relations in America
4. During Black History Month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, an African-American, commented, "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." Is America "a nation of cowards" on "things racial"? Why or why not?
Discuss with students the possibility of a class project on one of the subjects or questions raised during discussion of the Gates-Crowley episode. Or consider a project related to the president's comments—such as what "haunts us" about race relations, or about institutional racism. What, specifically, will be the focus of the project? How will the work be done? How might we act on what we learn?
For a detailed discussion of these and other questions and issues, see "Teaching Social Responsibility" in the high school section of TeachableMoment.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.