I wasn't there when the Cambridge police arrested Henry Louis Gates. Based on the police report, it seems that Gates behaved boorishly. Gates' own version of the event,suggesting that he was arrested because he asked for the officer's name and badge number, seems implausible. Whether he deserved to be arrested is another matter, but I am not shocked that he was. It is not a crime to be obnoxious, but there is a point past which putting it on display might be. In any event, it seems that Gates was arrested because he was a jerk, not because he was black.
Apart from that, the President's comments at his press conference were stone stupid as was his insistence that he is "surprised" that anyone would find his remarks troubling. Using this incident as a point from which to give a lecture on racial profiling is tantamount to making a judgment about an event with which he was not familiar and, to the extent that whatever happened in Cambridge was not racial profiling (and it seems that it was not), his point is weakened.
I was interested to see an op-ed in the Journal Sentinel Friday by Harvard sociology professor Lawrence Bobo. I took Larry Bobo's deposition years ago in a desegregation case. My recollection is that he was a pleasant young fellow who added little to the case. I have no sense of what he has done since.
But I do know something about Harvard and the sense of superiority that it instills in its students and faculty. It doesn't surprise me a bit that a Harvard prof would be appalled that a functionary would question him. Bobo's column inadvertently demonstrates that when he says that Gates is an influential scholar and "one of the most readily recognized black men in America."
Please. Gates is a well known scholar among people who know scholars. This puts his name recognition at a fraction of 1% and his "recognizability" at little more than the average guy. For better or worse, Michael Jordan, Denzel Washington, Kobe Bryant, Al Sharpton, Samuel Jackson and a host of others are readily recognizable black men. Skip Gates is not. In fact, there are no Harvard professors who are among the most readily recognizable men or women in America.
But Larry Bobo thinks so. And that says a lot about the attitude that got Gates into trouble. Gates thinks that the cop ought to have said "I’m sorry, sir, good luck. Loved your PBS series — check with you later!" Apologize and compliment.
Locally, James Causey writes about "the drill," i.e., knowing when to "keep your trap shut" when interacting with the police. With respect to the drill, he says "[m]any black men reading this column are now nodding their heads in recognition, and many whites are thinking, "Huh?"
In this, Causey reminds me a little of an Eddie Murphy SNL bit where he goes "undercover" as a white man and "learns" that white people don't have to pay for anything. Believe me, James, we know "the drill."
There's a reason for it. Police officers put their lives on the line everyday. We may know that we pose no threat to them, but they don't. They are all aware of seemingly innocuous situations that turned lethal in a matter of seconds. This doesn't mean you bow and scrape. It does mean that you don't behave in a threatening and hostile manner. It does mean that you don't hound them for doing their job. It may be that Skip Gates should not have been arrested for acting like a fool, but he should have known that is what he was doing.