At his press conference last week, President Obama seemed deliberately to kick the hornet’s nest that is the relationship between blacks and law enforcement.
Whether deliberate or not, the president should not have thrown the weight of the White House behind his friend, the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and against Sgt. James Crowley, the white police officer who arrested Mr. Gates in his Cambridge home.
The case has become a leading news story and yet again, the nation is taking measure of race relations and coming up with conflicting results. And to make the case even more savory to the public’s appetite, the element of free speech outside of race relations is also in play.
To reach any understanding of the Gates matter, a logical starting place is the fact that blacks draw disproportionate scrutiny from police, both in urban areas and in suburban and rural areas where they are not well-represented among residents. DWB, an abbreviation for “Driving While Black,” is often used sarcastically to describe the reason young African-American men are pulled over by patrol cars.
That said, it seems Mr. Gates may have been too quick to assume he was the victim of racial profiling. The 911 recordings reveal the woman who called about a possible break-in at the Gates house did not say the two men she saw at the door were black, and in fact did not describe their skin color at all. The two men turned out to be Mr. Gates and a black car service driver.
But can any nonminority pass judgment on the quickness with which Mr. Gates suspected racial profiling? Lending credence to Mr. Gates’ complaint is the fact that the woman who called police also told the dispatcher that the men had suitcases and suggested they may have had trouble with a key. If officers had approached the situation considering the men belonged at the house, a different outcome might have resulted.
For his part, Mr. Gates may have exacerbated the situation by waving his Harvard faculty ID at the officer, as if that entitled him to preferential treatment. The “Do you know who I am?” line only reaffirms a police officer’s commitment to avoid preferential treatment, as well it should.
What is perhaps most troubling about the case is the probable cause for the arrest. Sgt. Crowley described Mr. Gates’ angry behavior as “strange,” and said he arrested the man on a disorderly conduct charge because he was agitated and shouting. Surely we — white, black, man, woman — have the right to be agitated, angry and upset in front of a police officer in our house. Was Sgt. Crowley’s tolerance for that behavior at a lower threshold because Mr. Gates was black? Or because he was a Harvard professor flaunting that status to someone in a more blue-collar profession?
Perhaps the best resolution possible will come at the White House when Mr. Gates, Sgt. Crowley and President Obama gather in that great American equalizing ritual of working it out over a beer.