Friday, July 24, 2009

Why Henry Louis Gates, Jr. should sit down and shut up

I couldn't believe my ears at the end of Obama's press conference on Wednesday night. As usual, the President's performance had been intelligent and thorough, perhaps slightly plodding, but still wonderful when compared to the cluelessness of his opponents, or the previous administration. For a few sweet seconds, it looked like the presentation could claim "Mission Accomplished" - the public option in a new national healthcare plan might actually come to fruition.

But then came those five little words - "the Cambridge police acted stupidly" - and everything went down the toilet. It was as if Obama had suddenly set for himself a more clever trap than FoxNews could have ever contrived, and his press conference was suddenly yanked away from his control and went into a spin cycle orchestrated by his racist opponents.

So thank you, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (above left, during his widely-publicized arrest); you may have effectively derailed the campaign for healthcare reform.

And for what?

Well, most likely for the good professor's own career - and no doubt a forthcoming PBS special! (Before you write in, Gates has said as much himself.) In short, we may all have to continue to pay higher healthcare costs so that one of Harvard's best-and-brightest publicity divas (and one whose last PBS outing, about DNA profiling to test for African ancestry, fed neatly into the business plan of his own DNA-testing company) can climb back on his soapbox.

Oh, but what about the serious issues of racism in play, I can already here you mumbling angrily to yourself. To which I respond - this was always really more about class than race. I'm well aware of the unfair indignities that many African-Americans and Latinos must submit to at the hands of the police (and other, clueless whites) - being stopped for "driving while being black," for instance - and I don't want to belittle those offenses. I disagree with such practices, and understand how humiliating and angering they can be (even though my feelings are a bit mixed about some instances of racial profiling, because some have argued these policies are actually effective in fighting black-on-black crime).

But the Gates case is obviously not about racial profiling, at least not by the police. You could argue that the passerby who called in her concerns was, perhaps, succumbing in part to the siren call of "racial profiling," but the police were simply responding to a call about a possible crime in progress.

Once the (white) officer in question accosted Professor Gates at his home, the accounts of what transpired suddenly, unsurprisingly, diverge. The single photograph of the incident, however, seems to buttress the officer's claims of Gates's aggressive behavior, and he has since been revealed as quite a sympathetic character, who once struggled to save the life of Reggie Jackson, and has even led classes on (wait for it) racial profiling.

And I can well imagine how Gates's behavior could have gone out of control, in one of those time-honored displays of pique so common to Harvard students and professors while encountering a representative of law enforcement whom they believe is beneath them. (Somehow nobody's talking about that, because we all love to talk about race rather than class, but of course buried class resentment is driving the FoxNews spin even more than racial resentment.)

There's also the simple fact that most whites, as well as blacks, know by heart: you don't insult the police. They have the discretion to arrest you. Period. It's good that the charges against Gates were dropped, and that the police department apologized - the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. But the entire affair should be dropped at this point, too. The formerly "post-racial" Obama doesn't need this distraction - indeed, truth be told, while in the middle of a difficult legislative fight, he might do well to offer more of an apology to the cop involved (who, of course, is far beneath Obama and Gates in status, yet has steadfastly refused to apologize).

That way, maybe all our lots could be improved - especially the lot of poor African-Americans (rather than all the black executives the Globe has been interviewing).

Or then again, maybe a lot of harrumphing about race (in the People's Republic of Cambridge, no less!) is more important than universal healthcare. I guess we're about to find out.


  1. Spot on, aside from the fact that there is nothing illegal about insulting a cop.

    Yes Gates was being a douche (a job requirement for Harvard Professors), but after he showed the cop his ID, the officer had no legal reason to stay, no matter what insults Gates was screaming at him. The officer, pride now wounded, lured Gates outside by refusing to tell him his badge number until he came out. Once Gates was outside, where there was onlookers who might get 'disturbed' by his ranting (something needed for an arrest on a disorderly conduct charge), the officer took out his handcuffs while telling Gates to calm down and when this (obviously) made him even more agitated, the officer arrested him.

    This was not about racial profiling (aside from, as you mentioned, the lady who initially called the cops), but about the fact that we've gotten to the point where decent, law abiding citizens think it's okay for a cop to arrest someone for calling them names.

    The officer in question seems like a stand up fellow and he was just using the same underhanded (quasi-legal) tactics that pretty much every cop is trained to use these days but, for the record, it's not a crime to call a cop a name (though, try it and see if they don't slap you with a disorderly conduct charge).

    It's sad that we live in an era where cops can abuse your rights just because we think they have the right to. And it's just as sad that this whole mess is derailing health care, but I really think that cops need sensitivity training or something. If you're granted the right to carry a weapon and make arrests, you damn well better be able to take an insult, it's a fucking job requirement for customer service.

    Anyhoo, Gates is a self-serving douche, the cop was just doing what cops do, the republicans get the distraction they were praying for and our rights slip a little farther down the toilet. Anyone wanna fish them out?

    Two good reads on the subject:
    Here and here

  2. Thanks for your comment, Caz. Of course insulting a cop is not, nor should ever be, a crime. Still, it's good to remember that "racist!" is, in fact, an insult, and cops shouldn't be gratuitously insulted. And Prof. Gates wasn't charged with a crime; he was just briefly taken downtown, then released (with an apology). And we grant cops wide discretion over arrest for purely practical reasons - they need latitude to do their jobs (this is rather like pedestrians always having the right of way, despite their crazy behavior in Boston). Perhaps Sergeant Crowley shouldn't have gotten pissed, but what he did does not mean that we're living in a police state. Nor does it mean his irritation with Gates was racially motivated.