Friday, July 24, 2009

Professors behaving badly

The facts are not in dispute. A neighbor observed two men forcing their way into a home. The police arrived and ordered one of the suspects -- the one who claimed to be homeowner and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- to show i.d. Gates (initially) refused and grew belligerent. The situation quickly escalated and resulted in his arrest during which Gates ranted something like “you don’t know who you’re messing with.” But it was, in fact, Gates who didn’t know who he was messing with. Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, is one of the most highly regarded men in the field of racial profiling and if anyone was likely to tread carefully, it was this officer.

Gates, and others with little sense of what the police deal with every day on our behalf, said the police overreacted. President Obama, admitting he did not know all of the facts, nonetheless chimed-in saying the police acted “stupidly” and insinuated they were racist.

In short, Gates created a situation that less highlighted the plight of African Americans than it did shine a spotlight on the quagmire police wade through every day.

Obama has already backed-off his initial comments and Gates will likely soften his criticism, perhaps blaming his incendiary comments and actions on jet lag. (He’s already admitted the neighbor did the right thing in calling the police.) But he’ll need to do more. Police are not doormats; a professor who commands respect ought not to have a problem giving it. “Your mama,” is not just an inappropriate response in a contentious situation, it is a devolution into precisely the stereotype he is employed to instruct that African Americans are above. Gates’ actions are a setback for the civil rights cause.

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