Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his friends - first among them President Obama - think the most celebrated arrest since Sacco and Vanzetti was all about race. Friends of Sgt. James Crowley think the incident off Harvard Square was all about law and order and a lack of respect for the cops. It's a shame they ruined a teaching moment by getting the fundamental fact wrong.
Everyone with a pulse and a working lung knows the "facts" by now, even if some of the facts are mere factoids, as Norman Mailer famously described assertions that "seem to be facts, are taken as facts, but in fact are not facts." A (white) neighbor called the police when she saw two men she thought might be breaking into the professor's house, a police sergeant arrived and got into an argument with the professor when he tried to find out what was going on and the argument grew to a public entertainment for a growing crowd of neighbors watching from the street. The professor was black, the cop was white, and alas, that's all it takes to get something started in America, circa 2009.
But what seems to be about race isn't always about color. Mr. Gates accused the cops of asking impertinent questions simply because he's black (or "African-American," in the current fashion). President Obama agreed. In the endless retelling of the tale, the white neighbor who called the cops told the police dispatcher that "two black guys" were trying to break into the Gates abode. A review of the police 911 tape revealed Monday that the caller actually told the dispatcher that "two gentlemen" were trying to get into the door; she subsequently referred to one of them as a "gentleman" and to both of them as "individuals." Nothing about color.
Ego, not race, was affronted. Credential, not color, was offended. Mr. Gates' warning to the police sergeant - "you don't know who you're messing with" - was about his imagined clout, not the color of his skin. The cop could see the color of skin, but not the heft of the professor's clout, whatever it turned out to be. (For his part, the cop could have given the professor a written citation, walked away and saved himself a headache.)
Mr. Gates, who sprang from hardscrabble origins in West Virginia, is proud of his considerable academic accomplishments, and he should be. But pride somewhere became what Southerners, black and white, sometimes call "side." A learned professor at Harvard might call it hubris. College professors live in a small world, and quickly become accustomed to small gestures of deference, and like a newly minted second lieutenant eager to pounce on a sergeant who doesn't salute smartly enough, are easily vexed.
Before all this Mr. Gates had never sounded like a man searching for racial slights. He married a white woman (to the disappointment of his mother, who Mr. Gates says "hated" white people), and he professes to own 77 episodes of the old "Amos 'n' Andy" television show. He recalled to interviewer Brian Lamb of C-SPAN that he watched Amos and Andy with his family as a boy in West Virginia. "[We] took [Amos and Andy] as typical of the human experience, rather than typical of black people."
But West Virginia, like Kansas, has given way to Oz. Mr. Gates told Travel and Leisure magazine two years ago why he vacations on Martha's Vineyard, the summer retreat of the Beautiful People: "I started going to [Oak Bluffs] in 1981, and fell in love with the light. It reminded me of the light in the south of France, near St. Paul-de-Vence, which for me was a deja vu experience - it evoked the summer of 1973, when I spent a wonderful time in France with James Baldwin and Josephine Baker … I spend every July and August in my house near Oak Bluffs. I love bicycling, and because of my hip replacement I had a couple of years ago, I had a 24-speed tricycle made by hand in Germany … ."
Stanley Fish, a friend of "Skip" Gates and a law professor at Florida Atlantic University, argues in the New York Times that the professor was singled out for not staying in his place. "It's a version of the same old story," he says. "[Mr.] Gates is once again regarded with suspicion because … he has committed the crime of H.W.B., Housed While Black … ."
Harvard Square! Summers on Martha's Vineyard! Bicycling! Handmade tricycles! Deja vu experiences! Don't they teach 'em anything in police manners classes? When you're a tenured Harvard professor with handmade tricycles and deja vu experiences, you shouldn't have to answer questions from an Irish cop.