President Obama is facing a backlash for saying Wednesday that "police acted stupidly" for arresting Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates. What I don't get is why.
On July 16, a woman in Gates' Cambridge neighborhood called authorities to report two black men attempting a home robbery. Turns out there was no robbery in progress. The black men were Harvard Professor Gates and his driver, and the home in question belonged to the noted academic. The duo resorted to jimmying the door open because it was stuck but managed to get inside through the back door. However, when police arrived on scene and found Gates there, they asked him to provide identification to prove that he was the homeowner.
After viewing his ID and confirming that Gates indeed lived in the home, Cambridge Police arrested Gates anyway, citing disorderly conduct on his part. After the charges against the professor became public, though, the police department dropped them, calling the arrest "unfortunate and regrettable."
Despite the department's decision to drop the charges, Obama is being criticized for characterizing the arresting officer's behavior (not the officer himself) as stupid. The President's critics argue that he shouldn't have spoken without knowing all of the facts. Well, I argue that Obama didn't need to know all the facts. By dropping the charges and calling Gates' arrest regrettable, the Cambridge Police Department is admitting to wrongdoing, or "acting stupidly," as Obama so bluntly put it.
It would be another matter if the police had not dropped the charges. But by doing so, they are admitting to bad behavior on their part, however slight. What remains in dispute is whether Cambridge Police committed the act of racial profiling when arresting Gates. They deny this charge. According to them, the officer who arrested Gates--Sgt. James Crowley--has even trained other officers to avoid racial profiling. As for Obama, he never directly accused Crowley of arresting Gates due to his race. His exact words were: "What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."
I couldn't agree more. That said, I'm not accusing Crowley of racial profiling. The fact that he arrived at Gates' home after someone phoned the authorities puts that idea to bed for me. However, I don't doubt that race factored into Gates' arrest. This is because African Americans are routinely held to a different code of conduct than whites are. I know from personal experience that when African Americans are upset about something and show it, they are more likely to be labeled as having a chip on their shoulder or an attitude problem than whites who exhibit an equal amount of anger are. In fact, in my post on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, I mentioned how it was once commonplace for people of color in America to avoid making eye contact with whites, lest they appear "uppity." Given this, I wonder if Gates was really as belligerent as the arresting officer described him as being. Even if he was, would the white officer have arrested a white Harvard professor who became indignant after being accused of breaking into his own home? I tend to think not. I tend to think that Sgt. Crowley would have given Gates' white counterpart a break in this situation rather than arrest him. In the criminal justice system, whites are routinely given breaks that blacks aren't, including fewer convictions, reduced sentences and a lower likelihood of being sentenced to death.
For the record, Gates has disputed Cambridge Police's description of him, saying that he complied with all of Sgt. Crowley's requests. The fact that the department dropped the charges against the professor only serves to make him more credible. Yet, a vocal segment of the public continues to accuse Gates of wrongdoing. And, now, the President has been accused of wrongdoing for speaking out about the incident. Unfortunately, the critics and supporters of Gates are divided along racial lines, with blacks overwhelmingly supporting Gates. This paints a rather bleak picture of race relations, not to mention a familiar pattern of all but the most liberal whites refusing to empathize with an African American in a heated incident.