By now most people are aware of the events that took place at the Cambridge home of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. A person in the neighborhood (not a neighbor) saw two black men trying to force open a door and called police. Gates was returning home from an overseas trip and could not open the door to his home. Police arrived, a confrontation arose, and Gates was arrested for creating a public disturbance. The charges were almost immediately dropped.
Lots has been made of President Obama's response to a question from a reporter during his Wednesday night speech on heath insurance reform.
Here are some of the facts: (1) President Obama acknowledged that he did not know if race was a factor in the arrest of Gates; (2) he did say the arrest was stupid; and (3) race is a factor in confrontations between police and people of color in this country.
Here is my take on what might have happened. Gates was tired from his trip and was frustrated by his inability to enter his home. The police arrived and things escalated from that point. I don't know what my reaction would be if the police asked me to identify myself in my own home, but I suspect I would not be happy about the request. Gates challenged the officer's authority and the officer did not back down. The officer lured Gates outside and then arrested him. It was stupid to arrest someone in their own home for a trivial offense. On the other hand, Gates could also have diffused the situation by changing his demeanor.
I don't know if race was a direct factor, but the police culture that includes suspicion and isolation from the public certainly contributed. Throw in the possibility that Gates committed the crime of "contempt of cop" and you have the makings for a very ugly incident.
But perhaps something positive will result form this incident. We are talking about race and the criminal justice system, but we have to move beyond talk. Gates has promised to document the case of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. He will not have too look far as evidence abounds.
The immediate downside of this episode is that the president's comments are a distraction from other issues. And there are those who will politicize the issue into the 2009 version of the well-know "southern strategy." Race baiting is a powerful political tool.
Here is an update from the NY Times regarding my argument.