The Cop and the Professor

The title “The Cop and the Professor” sounds like a romantic comedy on Hallmark television channel, but has turned out to be an illuminating window onto contemporary American culture. For those who have been under a rock for the last few days, on July 16  the Cambridge police were called when a passersby, according to police reports “observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks” and “one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.”  The neighbor did not realize that the two men were Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and his driver returning to Gates’s rented home. The good professor had locked himself out. The police arrived. After this the details get murky, but Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct. According to the police, Gates was unruly while Gates says he was treated with disrespect as a “black man in America.”

When people are confronted with stories of an incident with insufficient information from which to draw a definitive conclusion, there is a tendency to draw from personal experiences. African Americans who have experienced unfair police treatment in their past would be inclined to believe the account of Professor Gates. Those who have met Harvard professors might not be surprised to find one that was loud and arrogant in response to a perceived insult. One is reminded of William F. Buckley’s oft quoted remark that he would rather live in a society governed by the first 2,000 people listed in the Boston phone book than the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty.

Unwisely, when confronted with a question about the incident at a press conference, President Barack Obama volunteered both that he did not have all the facts and that the police “acted stupidly.” While reluctant to comment on the Iranian unrest because of a lack of information, Obama, neglecting his obligations not to bias a case as the chief law enforcement officer in the country, was willing to opine on this particular incident. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol has suggested that Obama’s touchiness on the issue may be less an act of racial solidarity than class identity. Obama just feels more comfortable with Harvard professors and is willing to believe the worst about working-class police officers.

As the facts have sorted themselves out, the police officers involved are looking vindicated. Sgt. James Crowley as turns out is unlikely racist who valiantly tried to save Boston Celtics Reggie Lewis with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation 16 years ago. Lewis unfortunately died of cardiac arrest.

Obama has offered an apology of sorts calling Sgt. Crowley a “good man.” At this point, most have reached the conclusion that if Professor Gates had a cooler head he never would have been arrested and if Obama had declined to comment on a case on which he had limited information he would have lived up to his promise of being a transitional figure in US race relations. The unfortunate part, is that police officers will continue to feel defensive, real incidents of racial bigotry will be given less credibility, and Professor Gates will have one more tale of victimhood with which to regale his students at Harvard.

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