The 911 Caller Never Said “Black men.” A Paradigm of Typification

Sergeant James Crowley, the officer who arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr. for demanding his name and badge number, saw black men the whole way. He wrote in his police report that the woman who called 911, Lucia Whalen, reported seeing two black men breaking into Gates’ house. But, according to Whalen, she never told Crowley she saw two “black men.” It never crossed her mind that they were black. She was too far away to tell anything for sure. Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas has confirmed that the woman did not cite race in the 911 call, and Haas admits that the police report produced by Crowley identifies the men by race.

Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley

Crowley was operating in a racial framework from the beginning. This is a classic case of typification. He was told that there were men breaking into a house and he stereotypically thought black men. He saw a black man in a house on the phone and stereotypically thought criminal. Given proof that Gates was the legal resident of home, the officer simply couldn’t negotiate the terrain of his own racial thinking. How could a black man live in Harvard Square? How dare this man ask me for my name and badge number. Who does he think he is? It was not a matter of whether Crowley was going to arrest Gates, it was only a matter of when.

The caller also said the men had suitcases. She didn’t know whether they lived there but were having trouble with their key or were breaking and entering. The woman personally found the event unremarkable and only called because an older woman with her was concerned that something untoward might be happening. The 911 operator was very pushy. “What do the suitcases have to do with anything?” he asked sarcastically. Maybe they have to do with the fact that the residents were returning from somewhere or perhaps had locked themselves out of the house on the way to somewhere? Crowley heard “backpacks.” Black men with backpacks.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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