The following editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Thursday, July 23:

Race is a complex, uncomfortable American albatross. Racial perceptions can distort common sense and even justice, sometimes perverting simple truth into horrible misjudgment.

These were the demons that greeted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a literary scholar who happens to be African-American, as he found himself locked out of his home in an upscale Cambridge neighborhood and then under arrest by a white police officer for disorderly conduct after he had broken into the house.

And these also were the demons that several months ago met Dallas police officer Robert Powell and Ryan Moats, whom the white officer detained after the black football player drove through a red light in a rush to the hospital where his mother-in-law lay dying.

We know far more about what happened in the Dallas incident, which was caught on videotape, than we know about the exchange between Gates and the Cambridge officer. Officers have a thankless job that sometimes is made more difficult by the reactions of the people they question. Moats was surprisingly calm and collected; Gates was not, according to police reports, and shouted that he was targeted because “I’m a black man in America.”

Still, it is impossible to excuse either incident or to separate these from the veil of racial perceptions that cloud judgment. To a neighbor, Gates and his taxi driver prying on the door of the house looked suspicious, just as Moats’ driving through a red light attracted Powell’s attention. But then the subtle element of race injected another layer of suspicion into the interactions, one that may have led each officer to make judgments that proved wrong and regrettable.

Moats was cheated of the final moments with a dying relative, while Gates suffered the indignity of arrest, apparently after he took offense to the officer’s line of questioning and after he had established that he was indeed in his own home.

Gates and Moats aren’t the only victims of these incidents. Powell eventually turned in his badge and left the Dallas police force. The Cambridge arresting officer, James Crowley, now faces national scrutiny and an uncertain future. Undoubtedly, if everyone had it to do over again, each would handle these moments differently, with greater sensitivity, respect and judgment.

Police officers everywhere are taught to resist verbal provocations and to de-escalate potentially explosive situations, not fuel them. While easier said than done, this is a prime responsibility of any law enforcement officer. Common sense and wise judgment separate effective officers from the ineffective.

As a nation, we should learn from these incidents that the demons of America’s past aren’t easily extinguished. Only then can we begin to move forward. Until we do, we’re all victims.


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