Henry Louis Gates Jr. has threatened to make a documentary on “racial profiling” in the wake of his highly publicized arrest for disorderly conduct on July 16. It’s going to be a very long film, given the Harvard professor’s exceedingly expansive definition of what counts as biased policing. Unfortunately, Pres. Barack Obama’s take on police work is no more reality-based than Gates’s. Obama’s ill-considered lecture on the Gates arrest controversy during his Wednesday prime-time press conference was replete with ACLU misinformation about policing, misinformation that has been repeatedly refuted by the federal government itself.
But whereas Gates’s rantings about police bias might ultimately be dismissed as standard ivory-tower posturing, Obama has now put the presidential imprimatur on a set of untruths that will only fuel disrespect for the law and impede the police in their efforts to protect inner-city residents from crime. His belated recognition Thursday night that the arresting officer in the Cambridge incident was performing his duty hardly undoes the damage from his previous distortions.
Let’s acknowledge up front that Gates endured a bizarre and humiliating experience. Being escorted out of your home in handcuffs for what you perceive as no offense at all would feel like a grotesque invasion of privacy, due process, and property rights. Gates’s anger is therefore understandable. But just because an incident is — from one’s subjective perspective — unjustified does not make it racial. Gates was almost certainly not arrested because he was black, but quite possibly because he committed “contempt of cop,” an extralegal offense that can greatly affect the outcome of officer-civilian interactions.
Gates, however, sees race and racism in every aspect of this unfortunate episode, thus exemplifying the racial paranoia that can make police work so difficult. He accuses the witness who called in a possible burglary incident of “racial profiling” for merely describing what she saw. Here, in Gates’s own words, is what the caller observed: Gates and his “regular driver” from his “regular car service” were both on his front porch, “fiddl[ing] with the door.” (The New York Timesrecasts this delicious nugget from Gates’s limousine-liberal lifestyle as an interaction with a mere “taxi driver.”) Next, says Gates, “[m]y driver hit the door [which was jammed] with his shoulder and the door popped open.”
The caller’s 911 report, according to Gates, “said that that two big black men were trying to break in with backpacks on.” Such a description, provided undoubtedly under stress, is accurate enough under the circumstances. “My driver,” acknowledges Gates, “is a large black man.” But Gates calls it “the worst racial profiling I’ve ever heard of in my life.” Why? Simply because Gates himself is not “big.” But a rough description of individuals engaged in what to most observers would appear to be suspicious behavior, no matter the race of the individuals, is not “racial profiling,” it is simply ordinary crime reporting. Gates undoubtedly means to imply that the 911 caller, in her timorous white racism, sees every black man as “big,” but it is he who is engaged in racial stereotyping, not her.
Gates’s interpretation of the actions of the officer who answered the 911 call is just as narcissistic and deluded. As soon as the officer asked Gates to step onto the porch to speak with him, Gates started a long tirade against the officer’s racism, according to the police report. Nothing provides stronger corroboration of this allegation in the report than Gates’s own racially fevered account of the episode. There was nothing inappropriate, much less racist, in the officer’s request.
Confronting unknown suspects in dwellings and cars, where the officer cannot see the suspect’s full environment or hands, is the most dangerous activity that cops undertake. Six officers have been seriously wounded, two fatally, by suspects holed up in houses in Oakland and Jersey City this year; in 2007, an NYPD officer was shot dead by three thugs during a car stop. In the Cambridge burglary investigation, the officer was working by himself, without back-up. He had no idea whether he was confronting two armed suspects.
But Gates sees himself as the victim of police bias from the beginning of the interaction through its end. He shoehorns the incident into the standard racial-profiling narrative that the ACLU has honed to dishonest perfection over the years, in which the police allegedly grab any black man they can get their hands on just to make an arrest: “You can’t just presume I’m guilty and arrest me. . . . He just presumed that I was guilty and he presumed that I was guilty because I was black. There was no doubt about that. . . . I would hope that the police wouldn’t arrest the first black man that they saw.”