Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Robinson on the Gates Imbroglio

Eugene Robinson has an interesting take on l'affaire Henry Louis Gates in his latest Washington Post column. Here is an excerpt:

Obama's choice of words might not have been politic, but he was merely stating the obvious when he said the police behaved "stupidly." Gates is 58, stands maybe 5-feet-7 and weighs about 150 pounds. He has a disability and walks with a cane. By the time Sgt. James Crowley made the arrest, he had already assured himself that Gates was in his own home. Crowley could see that the professor posed no threat to anybody.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Crowley's version of the incident is true -- that Gates, from the outset, was accusatory, aggressive and even obnoxious, addressing the officer with an air of highhanded superiority. Let's assume he really recited the Big Cheese mantra: "You have no idea who you're messing with."

I lived in Cambridge for a year, and I can attest that meeting a famous Harvard professor who happens to be arrogant is like meeting a famous basketball player who happens to be tall. It's not exactly a surprise. Crowley wouldn't have lasted a week on the force, much less made sergeant, if he had tried to arrest every member of the Harvard community who treated him as if he belonged to an inferior species. Yet instead of walking away, Crowley arrested Gates as he stepped onto the front porch of his own house.

Apparently, there was something about the power relationship involved -- uppity, jet-setting black professor vs. regular-guy, working-class white cop -- that Crowley couldn't abide. Judging by the overheated commentary that followed, that same something, whatever it might be, also makes conservatives forget that they believe in individual rights and oppose intrusive state power.

That the class dynamic might have reversed even as the racial dynamic has remained the same is an interesting observation. His conclusion:

Yet Gates's fit of pique somehow became cause for arrest. I can't prove that if the Big Cheese in question had been a famous, brilliant Harvard professor who happened to be white -- say, presidential adviser Larry Summers, who's on leave from the university -- the outcome would have been different. I'd put money on it, though. Anybody wanna bet?

That's pretty much my assessment -- that this was not all about race, but had Gates been white, none of this would have happened.

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