Henry Louis Gates Jr. just got the subject for his latest PBS series, and it's not going to be a history of the woeful consequences of yelling at cops. The Harvard scholar was arrested for disorderly conduct at his Cambridge, Mass., home in an incident that has earned the Cambridge police a rebuke from the president of the United States.
In a press conference otherwise devoted to trying to save his sinking health-care plan, Barack Obama said the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates, although Obama stipulated twice that he didn't know all the facts.
Obama's ignorance didn't keep him from commenting on a matter of local policing ordinarily beneath the notice of the leader of the free world (we're not talking Martin Luther King Jr. in the Birmingham jail here). That's because the Gates arrest had already become one of America's Racial Moments, the occasion for ritualistic hand-wringing and self-flagellation over the country's racist past and present.
The incident is supposed to show the evils of racial profiling, but appears to be a lesson in the pitfalls of obstreperousness and arrogance on the part of Gates. He had just returned from a trip to China and couldn't get in his front door. He and his driver also black forced it open. A passer-by called the police.
As even Obama says of the story to this point, "So far, so good." Any passer-by seeing a man breaking into a home without knowing that he lives there might reasonably suspect a burglary, whatever the man's race, religion, creed or national origin. It was Gates' innocently misunderstood conduct that created the predicate for the entire incident, not his race.
But Gates immediately concluded otherwise when a Cambridge officer showed up to investigate. According to the police report, when Sgt. James Crowley asked Gates now in his house to come out on the front porch and speak to him because there had been a report of a break-in, Gates replied angrily, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?"
Presumably, that was a rhetorical question. In the course of further berating the officer for his racism as well as referring to his "mama," according to the police report Gates dropped a version of aggrieved celebritydom's favorite line: Don't you know who I am?
Crowley, a 42-year-old father of three, who coaches basketball and plays on a local softball team, apparently hadn't read "Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the 'Racial' Self," "The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters With the Founding Fathers," or any other books by Gates. Nor had he seen "From Great Zimbabwe to Kilimatinde," or his other PBS documentaries. He just wanted to ascertain that Gates lived in there.
Gates produced his ID, but claims the officer wouldn't identify himself, which the officer denies. Some of this will never be disentangled. But the interaction spiraled downward until the officer arrested Gates, basically for the offense known as "contempt of cop." In a tragicomic touch, the cuffed Gates needed his cane to get to the police car.
The officer, who has an exemplary record and has taught a police academy class on racial profiling, probably should have shown more forbearance. But interactions with police officers typically end better when you don't verbally abuse them. Does Gates believe that if he had despite his fatigue and anger simply answered the cop's questions, he still would have been dragged downtown for being a "black man in America"?
Recouping in Martha's Vineyard, Gates is considering devoting his next documentary to racial profiling. He says if Officer Crowley apologizes, he will do him the favor both of accepting it and educating "him about the history of racism in America." Since Harvard students pay $33,000 a year for the privilege of getting lectured by Henry Louis Gates, perhaps he sees this as a generous offer rather than another stupendously arrogant gesture.
Even in Barack Obama's "post-racial" America, the lectures never end.