Saturday, July 25, 2009

What If Kissinger Had Been Arrested–Or If Gates Weren't Famous?

In his second attempt, President Obama made common sense observations on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: The arresting officer, Sergeant Jim Crowley, and Professor Gates are decent individuals who were caught up in an escalating situation; Obama misspoke during his first comments; Crowley's arrest of Professor Gates was an overreaction; Gates also overreacted. Watch:

Obama also said, "The fact that this has become such a big indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society.." In that regard, Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker recounted a troubling question raised by the Reverend Eugene Rivers:

Eugene Rivers made a brilliant point today on one of the cable shows—don’t ask me which one, they’re all a blur—about the Skip Gates brouhaha. What if the cop had been black and the professor had been former Cambridge resident Henry Kissinger? And Kissinger had lost his temper and behaved obnoxiously, and the cop had arrested him in his own house and slapped the cuffs on him and hustled him down to the station house for a mug shot? Wouldn’t the buzz be a little different? Wouldn’t people be saying, “Wow, that cop really has an attitude”?

Does anyone doubt that the response to such a scenario would have been widespread sympathy for Kissinger and blame for the officer? This has nothing to do, of course, with the fact that both sides bear some responsibility for the actual situation.

Bob Sommer of the Kansas City Star raised another difficult point: what if Gates had not been a prominent black man?

Gates failed to cooperate as a black man should, as Sidney Poitier’s character did when he was arrested in The Heat of the Night, showing respect and deference. If this hadn’t been the most pre-eminent scholar of African-American Studies in the country, we never would have known about this incident—but that was partly Gates’s point. Absent his notoriety, a middle-aged black man would have been taken from his own home for no other offense than claiming his right to be where he was—and saying so in a tone to which tone Crowley took offense. No law was broken. But a cop took umbrage. Yet we’re more inclined, even eager, to believe the word of a unknown cop than that of a respected professor.

I disagree with Sommer on one point: we shouldn't discount the word of an "unknown" in deference to the famous. Nevertheless, it was Gates's fame that brought attention to this issue; had it happened to an "unknown" African-American man who didn't follow the code of behavior, no one would be debating this incident.

Of course, one more valid point made by Obama is that no one was talking about health care, which must have delighted those who want to delay and obstruct any reform on that issue.

I just read that Obama, Crowley and Gates are going to have a beer at the White House together. If this incident becomes a "teaching moment" about racial profiling and conflict resolution, something positive will come out of it.

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