When professor Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University heard about the controversial racial profiling of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates this past summer, Fagan took a uniquely academic approach in assessing the actions of Gates and the officer he encountered.
Fagan, a visiting professor at Yale Law School, discussed the Gates incident, as well as four other examples of racial profiling at a Davenport Master’s Tea Tuesday afternoon, including the case of Amadou Diallo, who was gunned down by four undercover police officers in the doorway of his New York apartment in March, 1999. He used his unique academic background — he earned his doctorate in civil engineering before becoming involved with sociology and law — to present an analytic, apolitical perspective to the audience of 12.
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“To conceive of racial profiling as a choice is probably a mistake, a poor conceptualization of the process,” Fagan said. “Think more about profiling as a sequence of decisions, each embedded in what happened in the past, in the larger context of what took place.”
Fagan drew on a knowledge of sociology, psychology, economics and game theory in demonstrating the complexity of the Gates incident. Gates, a 58-year-old black man who walks with a cane, had just come home from an international trip to find that he couldn’t open his front door. He, along with his black cab driver, went around to the back of his house and tried to enter through the back door. Officer James Crowley, a police sergeant who teaches classes about racial profiling at the police academy, was called to the scene after a neighbor placed a 911 call. A crowd of bystanders gathered around the incident while Crowley entered Gates’ home and, when Gates grew angry, arrested him.
Fagan discussed why Gates, who teaches African-American studies at Harvard, reacted the way he did.
“Gates was getting angry because he had just gotten off the plane from China, his leg was probably feeling lousy, and he couldn’t get into his own house because his lock was busted,” Fagan said. “But that’s not the only reason why he got angry. He could have done some quick algebra at the margins. Would a white professor have been treated this way? He was reacting to the margins of difference in treatment.”
Crowley’s motivations and actions during the incident were also explored in detail. Fagan drew attention to the fact that a crowd of bystanders had gathered, including members of the Cambridge and Harvard police departments, which may have put pressure on Crowley to prove his status in front of peers. Fagan also brought up the question of why Crowley decided to search Gates’ home even after the Harvard professor had shown his identification. The simple explanation would be that Crowley was making sure there was no weapon at the scene of a possible break-in, but ultimately in the end, Fagan argued that neither man had a choice in how they acted.
Throughout the series of dynamic interactions that took place between Gates and Crowley, with every additional action, each man limited his choices for the next action.
“Crowley had a whole police procedure manual he could follow but didn’t,” Fagan said. “He made choices that were off the chart in irrationality. His capacity for rational thinking, or according to game theoretic, his ability to perceive a broad range of contingencies, was completely compromised.”
Fagan also explained Gates’ irate behavior in his interaction with Crowley could have been partly because of his indignation at unequal treatment. Gates’ scholarly work focuses on race and “linked fate,” the idea that one person’s experience affects entire communities. Gates began to act on behalf of all black men, Fagan argued.
Three students interviewed after the talk all enjoyed Fagan’s step-by-step approach to breaking down the Gates incident.
Kristen Wright ’12 said she was engaged by the discussion, particularly how Fagan framed the Gates incident through other cases of racial profiling.
Ali Frick ’07 LAW ’12 also said she enjoyed Fagan’s alternative perspective.
“I had been working in Washington during the Gates’ situation so it was interesting to hear about it from an academic perspective rather than a political perspective,” she said.
Mariel Novas ’10 said she was interested, as a Boston native, in comparing the academic approach taken by Fagan with the other opinions she had heard back home.
Academic analysis aside, Fagan ended his talk with one final conclusion:
“Think about the margins,” he said. “Would a white professor have been treated same way? My guess is probably not.”