The XX Factor

Were They White, Black or Hispanic? Time to Retire the Question

“Were they white, black or hispanic?” It turns out the first mention of race during the 911 call that led to the arrest of Henry Gates came from the operator, not the caller, who’s always said that she never mentioned the race of the men she’d seen. It seemed like a legitimate question to me, but not to Delores Jones Brown, Director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who told NPR’s “Morning Edition” that the question itself “alerts me to the possiblity that the Cambridge police have an issue with racial ethnic identity.”

My first reaction to that-as a white former Manhattan criminal prosecutor-was outrage. If this operator doesn’t get enough information to allow the police to locate and question a possible criminal, she’s not doing her job. You might not think it from stories like Marjorie’s about her family’s encounters with racist police officers, but the cops aren’t actually supposed to stop anyone without some sort of probable cause-and a description of what a suspect looks like is a pretty basic part of that. You call 911 to tell them you see someone suspicious, you want them to find the guy, right?

It sounds reasonable enough when you put it like that. But as I stewed-and as I read the transcript of the call-it became clear that race meant nothing in the context of describing these “suspects.” What they were wearing, what they were doing, what they were driving-any of those might have been more helpful. “Can you describe the men?” might elicit whatever information the caller had to offer. But that’s not what was asked. That’s not, I suspect, what’s in the script. So maybe it’s true that this particular question says more about the questioning authority than about the suspect it seeks. Maybe it’s time for the Cambridge police department-and a few others, I suspect-to think about what it is they’re really asking.