"Only if we let go of labels that we assign to people and things will we be able to understand reality."

essays

Anahit Sahakyan

In this essay, LACCD student Anahit Sahakyan evaluates the critical thinking abilities of three men in regard to the issue of race. The first two men are Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge Police Department officer Sergeant James Crowley, who were involved in an infamous 2009 imbroglio that spotlighted the issue of race in America. (Click here to read about this incident in Bracha Schefres essay “CAUTION: Contents Volatile When Mixed With Anger,” published in the fall 2012 issue of West.) Ta-Nehisi Coates is the third man whose critical thinking abilities Anahit evaluates. As the basis of her evaluation, she uses Coates’ article “Fear of a Black President,” published in September 2012 in The Atlantic Magazine, of which Coates is a senior editor.


Anger Blurs Reason

Racial issues have always caused emotions to flare and volcanoes of anger to erupt, even from the coolest of minds. Two issues that caught the media attention, especially during the first term of the first African American President of the United States of America, were the 2009 imbroglio between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley, and the still-in-the-news issue of the gunning down of black American teenager Trayvon Martin by the white-skinned George Zimmerman in February 2012. Both these issues have sparked heated debates, and their audience has been led through the rigmarole of examining accusations, counter accusations, claims and counter claims, before finally coming to conclusions about the issues.

While the Professor/Cop imbroglio came to pass in 2009, and was resolved within a week of the event, the murder of Trayvon is still under investigation. Various segments of the media, academia, politicians, and the public in general have been airing their views on this latter issue, which has become notorious as one of racial bias that triggered the shot, one fateful evening in February 2012, that killed Trayvon Martin.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic Magazine, and a black American himself, wrote an exhaustive essay titled "Fear of a Black President" that expresses his feelings of anger about what he characterizes as the hypocrisy of racial integration—feelings that are exacerbated by many incidents of racial discrimination, including the Trayvon Martin shooting and the Professor/Cop imbroglio. The one common link among the three older men—Ta Nehisi Coates, Professor Gates, and Sergeant Crowley—seems to be anger. But if one were to compare the responses of the three men to decide who among the three is a more rational thinker or a better critical thinker, I would choose Mr. Coates. Mr. Coates comes across as a better thinker primarily because he uses better techniques to come to a conclusion in his article and displays critical thinking skills in the process.

However, it is difficult to compare the three men in question because their situations, their roles, and their responses in relation to one or both of the two incidents—the Travyon Martin shooting and the Prof/Cop imbroglio—were very different from each other. Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates were directly involved in an event labeled as racial profiling, and the two men did not have the time to think out their responses at length. Thus, the two were at a major disadvantage when it comes to critical thinking skills in action. On the other hand, Mr. Coates had all the time to think, research and plan his response to this issue and others about race. Moreover, Mr. Coates was not even involved in the Prof/Cop issue directly, but took it upon himself, as a member of the black American community and an editor of The Atlantic Magazine, to make public his opinion on the issue. In this regard, Mr. Coates’ thoughts appear to be well evaluated, and he uses better critical thinking skills than those displayed by the Professor and the Sergeant, on the spur of the moment, during their encounter. Hence, based on the fact that critical thinking is a skill, a process, a way of life that a person must practice all his or her life, I would grant Mr. Coates the title of being a better critical thinker in this group.

The Professor/Cop imbroglio drew media attention and even evoked a response from the President, who in turn experienced public censure because of his impulsive comment on the event: the Cambridge Police Department behaved “stupidly” (Thompson). The police officer, Sergeant James Crowley, arrested Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. after an altercation that escalated after the Sergeant responded to a call of a reported break-in in progress at the Professor’s residence, during which he asked the Professor to show his identity and step outside the residence. The Professor took offense at being interrogated about a possible break-in into his own house. His attitude from the very beginning was one of unpleasantness toward Sergeant Crowley. Professor Gates seemed to be working from the preconception that white police officers are prejudiced against blacks, which is why the Sergeant was standing on the Professor’s doorstep suspecting him of breaking into his own house.

The Washington Post interview of Sergeant Crowley reports the Sergeant saying that when he first saw Gates, “in my mind, I'm thinking, 'He does not look like someone who would break into the house.' " At the same time, however, "from the time that he opened the door, it seemed that he was very upset, very unhappy that I was there" (Thompson), suggesting very clearly that the Professor was not using critical thinking skills at all and was biased from the very beginning of his encounter with the Sergeant. Further, the Professor burst out in anger and let his emotions control his behavior, too. He refused to show proof of his identity and refused to speak to the Sergeant rationally; he abused him verbally and even threatened him—according to Officer Figueroa in his report of the incident. Sergeant Crowley’s colleague, Officer Figueroa was a witness to the event, and records on his report that:

As I stepped in [to Professor Gates’ residence], I heard Sgt Crowley ask for the gentleman’s information to which he stated “NO I WILL NOT!” The gentleman was shouting out to the Sgt. that the Sgt. was a racist and yelled that “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO BLACK MEN IN AMERICA!” As the Sgt. was trying to calm the gentleman, the gentleman shouted “You don’t know who you’re messing with!”

This report provides ample evidence of anger taking control of the Professor’s reason, making a simple incident get out of hand. An incident that could have been terminated without any issue was blown out of proportion because of the Professor’s lack of critical thinking.

Good critical thinking would have required the Professor to reflect on the reason why the policemen were there at his home, and take all the facts into account. However, the Professor chose to work from his preconception, his apparent notion that white police officers take every opportunity to impose their authority on blacks, and the Professor let his emotions carry him away. Had he seen things as they were, as J.D. Salinger’s Teddy in the short story “Teddy” suggests, he would not have been arrested.

Teddy, Salinger’s eponymous protagonist, suggests that we let our “logic” cloud our thinking. Only if we let go of labels that we assign to people and things will we be able to understand reality. It takes the bright light of complete knowledge of facts and information to help break our erroneous notions and misconceptions of people and things. Like the prisoners in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the Professor needed to look at the truth after stepping outside the cave of his misconceptions about white police officers. Had he exercised the patience to listen to the Sergeant and analyzed the facts, he would have been able to use his critical thinking skills better.

In this Professor/Cop imbroglio, Sergeant Crowley was a better thinker than professor Gates—at least initially. He did not let his anger overcome his reasoning ability immediately. He exercised self-restraint. However, Sergeant Crowley lost his cool when the Professor made personal comments and accused him of being racist. The Sergeant, who has taught a class on racial profiling to police officers for five years, allowed his anger to control him when he arrested the Professor. However, he does not seem to think that this arrest was a mistake. The Washington Post interview with Sergeant Crowley quotes the Sergeant as saying that:  "I'm still just amazed that somebody of his [Professor Gates’] level of intelligence could stoop to such a level, and berate me, accuse me of being a racist or racial profiling" (Thompson).

Professor Gates, on the other hand, accuses Sergeant Crowley of highhandedness and shows that the Sergeant was not using his critical thinking skills either. Professor Gates’ lawyer’s statement about the arrest of professor Gates reveals that:

Professor Gates [then] asked the police officer if he would give him his name and his badge number. He made this request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gates’ request for this information. After an additional request by Professor Gates for the officer’s name and badge number, the officer then turned and left the kitchen of Professor Gates’ home without ever acknowledging who he was or if there were charges against Professor Gates. (The Root)

This narration shows that Sergeant Crowley did not furnish information about himself, which heightened the Professor’s anger and led him to doubt the officer’s intention for interrogating him about the possible break-in. Sergeant Crowley seemed to work from the pre-conclusion that the professor had broken into the house, and after he had confirmed the Professor’s identity, he walked out of the house without answering the enraged Professor’s question. Once outside the house the Sergeant saw spectators gathered and chose to save his image as a police officer. He issued warnings to the angry, shouting Professor, and even showed him his handcuffs, further infuriating the Professor. Finally, he did arrest the Professor on charges of disorderly conduct when the Professor continued shouting and accusing the Sergeant of being racist (Figueroa, The Root).

Unfortunately, Sergeant Crowley, despite his training and despite his experience as a teacher of a racial profiling course, did not respond well to the situation, and instead became angry. For this reason, he ultimately ranks second in critical thinking skills, with the Professor. The Sergeant could have used his previous experience on the job to deal with this situation in a better way, but he did not. Like the Professor, he let anger cloud his reason.

Now, let’s focus on Ta-Nehisi Coates as a critical thinker. Let’s also remember that this senior editor of The Atlantic Magazine has the advantage of being a spectator, of not acting or reacting in person to either the Professor/Cop imbroglio or the Travyon Martin shooting.

In his article “Fear of a Black President,” Mr. Coates uses a number of skills of as a critical thinker: evaluating texts, compiling evidence, and citing this kind of data to build his argument and present his case about white racism in America. However, Mr. Coates is not a perfect critical thinker, because he also lets his anger take control of his thoughts. He expresses his anger about the hypocrisy of the American system, which he states thus:

For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. (Coates)

He further states that “[i]n warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation” (Coates), which makes him conclude that African Americans are still being racially discriminated against. He further goes on to state in his article that white people in America have not truly accepted the idea of having a black American President. In his article, Mr. Coates strings together several pieces of evidence to connect the killing of Trayvon Martin with a general climate of white racism against blacks and with whites’ supposed lack of acceptance of President Obama. However, the fact remains that Mr. Coates is working from a preconception that forms the basis of his entire argument. The only attribute of a critical thinker that Mr. Coates displays is his acknowledgement of his own anger. However, he lets his anger take control of his reason, and it leads him to highlight only evidence that suits his purpose. Mr. Coates uses evidence but tinges it with his flavor, his preconception, and his labels. For example, he rants about the President, contending:

After Obama won, the longed-for post-racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified. At rallies for the nascent Tea Party, people held signs saying things like “Obama Plans White Slavery.” … On Fox & Friends, Glenn Beck asserted that Obama had exposed himself as a guy “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.... This guy is, I believe, a racist.”  Beck later said he was wrong to call Obama a racist. That same week he also called the President’s health-care plan “reparations.”

In these words, Mr. Coates negates his evidence that whites are racist without seeming to realize his error. On the one hand, he states that Mr. Obama won the election, and on the other that racism intensified—but he does not, of course, provide any credible evidence to support this contention. Next, he uses one white man’s comment—Glen Beck’s comment—as evidence of white racism in general, but also adds that Mr. Beck’s comment was later withdrawn. Thus, such a comment does not stand as evidence. However, Mr. Coates uses such comments and sensational headlines as evidence, when these tactics are well-known gimmicks of the media to hike their viewership ratings. Mr. Coates overlooks the overwhelming majority of people, whites in particular, who voted for Mr. Obama to be President. These white voters are evidence that Mr. Coates is wrong about whites, and that mass egregious racism can safely be relegated to the past. It is only an insignificant number of white people who are racist. Making sweeping generalizations that encompass all white people is not critical thinking.

Comparing the three men—the Professor, the Sergeant and Mr. Coates—in an effort to decide who is the better critical thinker is challenging. Each man allows his anger to cloud his reason. However, considering Mr. Coates’ awareness of his own anger and of the fact that there are white people in America who have helped to bring about a wave of positive change in America…he is the best critical thinker. If Mr. Coates could control his anger better, then perhaps he might be able to understand what is otherwise obvious to others: America has changed for the better.  In November 2012, President Obama was re-elected as President.

Works Cited

  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi. "Fear of a Black President." Atlantic. Sept. 2012: n. page. Web. 1 Dec. 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/>.
  • Figuera, Carlos. "Figuera's report." Incident Supplement. 20 July 2011: n. page. Web. 1 Dec. 2011. <http://novatownhall.com/graphics/2009/07/0723092gates3.gif>.
    "Lawyer's Statement on the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.." The Root. 20 July 2009: n. page. Web. 10 Dec 2011. <http://www.theroot.com/views/lawyers-statement-arrest-henry-louis-gates-jr>.
  • Plato. "The Allegory of the Cave." The History Guide: Lectures on Modern Intellectual History. The History Guide, 13 May 2004. Web. 11 Nov 2012. <http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/allegory.html>
  • Salinger, J. "Teddy." My Own Resources. Miguelmllop, 08 Dec 2000. Web. 28 Oct 2012. <http://www.miguelmllop.com/stories/index.htm>.
  • Thompson, Krissah and Thompson, Cheryl W.“Officer Tells His Side of the Story in Arrest of Harvard Scholar.” The Washington Post. 24 July. n.page. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. 2009.< http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2009/07/23/AR2009072301073.html>

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