Race remains an issue that cuts through American culture and society like a scythe. The arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has captured the imagination of the country and it is not difficult to see why. The story only works because Gates is black and the arresting officer was white, with the familiar "town v. gown" dynamic thrown in for good measure. The only reason "Hardball" led the show last night not with health care, which was what the President spent the most time talking about at his press conference, but with the President’s remarks about race is that race is compelling because we are all of us still actors in the story.
Of course, it is easy to pat ourselves on the back. And, yes, it truly was astounding to see a black President at the podium in the East Room discussing his "personal friend" Professor Gates, who is a black professor at the nation’s leading university. But, it is also undoubtedly true that if Gates were white he probably would not have been arrested and we most definitely would not be talking about it.
Except, I think, if the white man trying to break into his own home was also a fatigued university professor. When I first heard of the incident in Cambridge, it immediately struck me that what happened could be accurately described as a "pissing match." When Professor Gates asked the officer, "Do you know who I am?" you can imagine the tone in his voice. Nor was Gates making an appeal to non-racial fair play. He was invoking his own authority against that of the officer. Anyone who has ever tried to argue with a police officer knows that they, too, are not immune to being sensitive about their own authority. It is difficult to imagine two professions that are more characteristically capable of pompous indignation.
Race should, I think, almost always be discussed alongside of class. Americans don’t like to speak about class. We eschew class-based politics. But, when Professor Gates talks about the officer’s behavior being difficult to understand because of the way Gates was dressed and the way he carried himself, well, you see that race is not the entire story for either protagonist in the story.
Compare the Gates story to this morning’s sports page, which reports that Michael Vick met with the NFL commissioner yesterday and is likely to return to the league. Vick, you will recall, went to jail for running a dog-fighting ring in which he was especially cruel and inhumane. I will bet Skip Gates has never been to a dog fight. I will bet Michael Vick knew better than to challenge the police officers that came to his house. There is wisdom as well as cruelty in the experiences of rural black folk that you don’t learn drinking coffee in Harvard Square. And, I will bet very few professors, black or otherwise, feel much in the way of sympathy with Mr. Vick.
At the end of the day, the police officer in Cambridge did not arrest Gates because he was a threat to the society in any meaningful way. Nor did he arrest Gates because he was black. He did it because he had been challenged, although the fact that the challenge came from a black man may have affected the officer’s psychology too. What is undoubtedly true is that it is no crime to be upset in one’s own home. It is no crime to ask for a police officer’s badge. It is no crime even to suggest that the police officer’s motives might be racist. This is why, as the President said, the police officer acted stupidly. The story sheds some light on how we view race and also some light as to how the educated classes view police officers, both issues worth discussing. But, I wish people paid as much attention to the ways they interact with their black neighbors and local police officers as they do watch a story like this one. It is amazing how much good can arise when we simply approach each other like fellow human beings.