The Gates incident seems to have had little to do with race but a lot to do with the natural human misunderstandings that happen every day in police scenes — and its final twist has everything to do with insider privilege and aristocratic disdain.
Regarding the latter, here are the apparent facts: Both an African-American and a Hispanic officer were soon at the scene and seem to confirm the arresting white officer’s narrative, as do disinterested witnesses in the neighborhood (Cambridge, Mass., not being known as a hotbed of racist activity); a picture tells a thousand words, as one seems to show a handcuffed Gates screaming among a calm group of multiracial police; anyone who has had law enforcement come to his residence investigating a possible break-in knows that the one thing you do not do is begin insulting armed policemen who are tense and not sure exactly what is going down as they arrive; soon the machinery of Harvard University, the African-American mayor and governor, and ultimately the president all weigh in on behalf of Professor Gates in a way not true of most “I say/he says” disputes.
And when the president says the police acted “stupidly” he speaks without the facts of the case and is more right that he thinks: If someone were to call a policeman in Cambridge to investigate a possible entry by two African-American looking suspects into the home of the country’s leading emblem of racial theory and grievance, the officer would be entering a cultural minefield from which he might not escape unscathed: come too late to Professor Gates’s home: racist; come not at all to Professor Gates’s home: racist; come to Professor Gates’s home: racist.
When the healer President Obama casually characterizes law enforcement as acting “stupidly” and then blithely says we all know that African-Americans and Latinos are stopped disproportionately — without the corollary that we all know that African-American and Latino males also commit and are convicted of crimes in numbers higher than their general percentages of the population and therefore can naturally also become more likely suspects — then we simply regress on questions of race, though in frustration rather than due to the “cowardice” cited by the attorney general.
It is tragic that the officer did not say, “Sorry for bothering you, Professor Gates. Of course I recognize you and regret that I had to bother you while you were legitimately breaking into your own home. This won’t happen again.” (And of course, Professor Gates might have said, “No problem; I’m relieved you’re looking out for my house while I’m gone.”) But as the Romans said, sumus homines, non dei.
Bottom line: Professor Gates probably overreacted, insulted a police officer who was trying to ensure that his home was not being broken into as was first reported, wrongly alleged racism on the part of the officer, and got arrested for his disorderly conduct amid witnesses and fellow police officers who confirm the arresting officer’s narrative — and then assumed — quite rightly as it turns out — that his Harvard connections, personal friendship with the president, governor, and mayor would allow him lattitudes not open to others.
Meanwhile, that the rest of the country is supposed to cringe and feel sorry that we are still a racist nation — as an African-American president, governor, and mayor all weigh in on the plight of an endowed African-American professor — seems odd. Sorry, but somehow I think most would tend to disagree.
And if the public comes away with any lasting impression, it will be that an impromptu Obama, for all the post-racial rhetoric, still sees controversies in prisms that reflect stereotyped us/them racialism rather than looking at each incident empirically.
There were no winners in this comic tragedy — but one clear loser: last night, the president of the United States.