Monday, July 27, 2009

The Gates Saga Continued

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates has ballooned into a much bigger controversy than I expected, so I couldn’t help weighing in on the latest developments. There are a few issues I want to address:

1. Should Gates have been arrested?

This question has become increasingly complicated in recent days. It’s come out that a black officer at the scene supports Gates’ arrest. More of what Gates said has been disseminated as well. When asked to step outside, he apparently said, “I’ll talk with your mama outside.” Still, when asked, Gates did show his identification. Hence he could not have been breaking and entering, or burglarizing the house. So the arrest was made for disorderly conduct. All sides agree that Gates was shouting at the officer. But I’m not sure that warrants an arrest. Why does wearing a police uniform make you exempt from criticism or chastisement? Gates could have chosen to berate anyone else verbally in his home, and he wouldn’t have been arrested. So it seems, like the police officer was just pulling rank in the situation.

2. Was President Obama right to intervene in the situation?

At his press conference last week, Obama said the police had “acted stupidly” in the situation. That caused a firestorm of controversy. The police union has called upon Obama to apologize for his comments. I think weighing in was a mistake for Obama. When he admitted he didn’t know all of the facts, yet still weighed in on the side of his friend, he opened himself to charges of favoritism. He’s also taken the spotlight off his signature initiative, healthcare. Now people are talking about this incident and Obama’s statements instead of healthcare. This is not a distraction he needed right now. Obama has since walked back his “stupidly” comments and called the police officer to let him know he wasn’t trying to malign him.

Obama can still fix the situation. He has invited the police officer and Gates to the White House and will try and make a show of reconciliation. He could get a favorable photo-op. And then this week, he needs to work his hardest to focus our attention again on healthcare.

3. Was racism at play in this incident?

It’s harder to say that now than it was a few days ago. As noted above, the black officer at the scene supports the arrest. And there’s no doubt that Gates was behaving arrogantly. The argument can be made that the policeman arrested Gates not out of racial animus, but out of anger at the way Gates was treating him. That doesn’t make the arrest right, but it could mean it wasn’t racist. The key here is whether the police officer would have arrested a white man who was similarly hectoring him. There is no evidence from the officer’s record to indicate that he’s racist. He even teaches classes on racial profiling, and has been praised as professional by those he’s served with.

Where racism might have played a role was at the very beginning. The white woman who called the police upon the two black men trying to get into Gates’ house could have been acting on racial prejudice. She might not for example, have called the police on two attractive white women doing the same thing. If not, then prejudice of some kind was at play.

4. What does this mean for race relations in America in 2009?

I worry that this could inflame race relations. After the election of Obama in 2008, it seemed like race relations could only improve. But this situation upsets blacks, many of whom feel this is one more instance of police mistreatment of black men. They tend to see it as a symptom of a larger disease that leads to the disproportionate stopping of black drivers, to white clerks tailing black clients in stores, and even to shootings like Amadou Diallo’s. But whites could see this as situation as a continuing pattern of poor treatment of white men. It could be seen as working class whites like Frank Ricci and the officer in this case who are always hurt by affirmative action, and our politically correct culture. If that happens, then the politics of racial grievance could be making a return in the near-future.

1 comment:

  1. I think Obama's insertion of himself into the Gates affair has been an unmitigated disaster. He gained nothing except greater friendship with the exceedingly arrogant Mr. Gates at the expense of it being the favorite Obama-bashing soundbite by the law-and-order right. As you correctly point out Marcus, that press conference was to talk about health care and all that effort went down the toilet with a single question.

    The fact that the home was owned by Harvard and not Mr. Gates is more relevant than it gets coverage for being. Gates broke into someone else's property and was acting belligerently therein. If I broke into my dorm room on campus and proceeded to scream and berate the responding police officers, there is a great chance that I would be arrested. You read in The Dartmouth's police blotter all the time of drunk, of-age students taken into protective custody due to their drunken belligerent behavior.

    I also saw on MSNBC this morning that the media reports saying that the white caller warned of "two black men" breaking into the house were exaggerated. She merely said that there were "two men" breaking into the home.