Gates/Crowley and the Sociology of Deference

It’s hard to know just exactly what role race played in the well publicized arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.  Race is one of those variables that so imbues life in the United States that rare is the sociological research that does not have to control for race.  We are socialized to see race even when we are being educated about racial tolerance.  So to pinpoint just what role race played in this one issue, where race as a variable cannot be controlled, is well nigh impossible. And it may even be unnecessary.  This issue can be understood without the racial variable, and may even be of greater social value if we look at the role of power and deference rather than white and black.

By assuming that race is not a variable we can move on to a different, more concrete explanation and lesson.  Let’s assume that Sgt. Crowley was not looking at race.  He still arrested a man from his own home who, it could be argued, had good reason to over-react to what was happening.  Let’s leave race out of the equation when looking at Prof. Gates’ reaction to being confronted by a police officer in his own home.  On one hand, it is not pleasant, and may even be offensive to be accosted and accused of wrongdoing when all you were doing is trying to enter your own home.  On the other hand, if Prof. Gates had simply controlled his anger, it’s likely that Sgt. Crowley would have gone on his way and this would be nothing more than a one inch story on page A17 of the Boston Globe.

But what was it, exactly, that Sgt. Crowley and Prof. Gates were reacting to.  Of course, race may be a subtext, but it may not necessarily be the defining variable.  A better explanation may involve the role of deference and status between the two men.  Gates, an Ivy League professor, and Crowley, a police sergeant.  Both of these men hold positions of status and authority.  As such, both men expect (and some may argue, deserve) a certain amount of deference to be applied to any interaction concerning them.  Being accosted by the police in his  own home is definitely a breach in deference from the point of view of Prof. Gates.  True, it may be that such status for a black professor may require greater nuance than for a white professor, but we are trying to control the race variable here.  For Sgt. Crowley, Gates’ non-deferential behavior toward an officer of the law (a sergeant, so an officer with authority) could also be seen as an affront.

In essence, what we see here could be defined as a good old fashioned conflict cycle based on the refusal to recognize and apply requisite deference rituals.  As a man with a deep counseling background I can tell you that conflict cycles almost always end badly.  And this situation ended badly.

So what can be learned from this perspective.  I would suggest that the onus of this lesson should fall on the police.  Yes, Harvard professors could abide a lesson or two, but in this matter, it was Sgt. Crowley who was on another person’s property–albeit doing his job.  As the man with the badge and the authority of the state behind him, just as is the case with counselors engaged in conflict cycles with clients, he had the responsibility to defuse the conflict with strategies that did not involve force. I’m sure police receive training with regard to conflict cycles, but may not fully understand the role that ritual deference plays in their lives. An understanding of deference may make it easier for the police to deal with such situations where breaches in deference are hard to elaborate.

This blog is not meant to deny the role of race in this issue, but rather to offer a different, more practical, lesson that may be obscured by the race variable.

–Another aside to this story may have to do with neighborhood/community relations.  If the woman who reported the “break-in” (who was not the same woman who called 911) had been better incorporated into her community, knew her neighbors, it is unlikely she would have been alarmed by two men forcing their way into a home.  According to the New York Times, this woman was a fairly new resident in the neighborhood. But there was a time when neighbors would introduce themselves almost immediately to newcomers.  Rituals for accepting new members into a neighborhood have broken down over the years.  This is another matter that is not being addressed because race is the default debate.


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