The rush to claim racism

gates

One of the things I hate about our society these days (besides Paris Hilton and those idiots at Fox News) is the incredible rush to judgement everyone makes.

Quick, a story has happened, don’t worry if you know all the facts, have a take, any take! Blast somebody, cry foul, demand immediate justice … the other side of the story be damned.

Our 3-year-old’s mentality (“I want it and I want it now!) flared up again over the last few days, when the story of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has been chewed up and spit out by the media and the blogosphere.

If you’re not familiar with the story, Gates, a brilliant man who’s one of the foremost African-American historians alive, was arrested Thursday at his home for disorderly conduct. He had arrived at his home in Cambridge, Mass., from a trip to China. A white neighbor of his thought he was trying to break in, called the cops, and Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct.

This story has gotten an enormous amount of attention; even President Obama was asked about it.

And for the most part, the reaction was consistent: How could the Cambridge cop, Sgt. James Crowley, arrest such a prominent man, in his own home? What a racist officer he must be, and how disgraceful is it that in 2009, when we have an African-American president, that stuff like this can happen.

First of all, any white person who doesn’t think this goes on to black people on a regular basis is just delusional. I don’t care how far we’ve come, racist behavior by white police officers and other public officials happens all the time, still.

But look a little deeper at this situation, take a deep breath, and let’s look at what actually happened. Gates is a pretty famous guy, but he’s not someone you’d instantly recognize. So the idea that the white woman who didn’t know it was him, and just assumed he was an ordinary black person, is not lunacy.

Then, there’s this: Gates was having trouble getting into his house, all parties stipulate. So he asked the cabdriver who’d driven him there to help him get in the house.

Imagine you’re the neighbor, and you see two men trying to jimmy open the front door to a nice house. Is it so wrong for her to call the police?

Then let’s look at what happened inside the house. When the officer, Crowley, arrived, he told Gates there was a report of a break-in. Gates reportedly got angry and demanded the officer’s badge number. Crowley said he asked Gates for some identification, and that Gates initially refused.

Eventually, Gates started getting agitated and yelled at the officer, and Crowley then arrested the professor for disorderly conduct.

Put yourself in Crowley’s shoes for a moment: He’s got an angry man yelling at him, he’s been told there was a burglary in the house, and the man won’t identify himself.

I’m not saying Crowley acted totally correctly; you could make a strong argument that once he learned who Gates was, the arrest never should’ve been made.

But again, there is some nuance here; Crowley didn’t know who Gates was, according to the police report Gates was screaming at the officer, and I don’t think we should automatically brand Crowley “a racist cop” as so many have.

The charges were dropped a few hours later, and of course I understand why Gates is angry. But please, can everyone just take a step back and not try to make this into a Rodney King or Amadou Diallo-type incident?

This is not a black and white story, and if people would just learn a few of the facts, the knee-jerk cries of racism, that do no one any good when they’re unproven, might die down just a little bit.

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2 responses to “The rush to claim racism

  1. You might want to pass this on to a guy named Barack Obama. You can reach him here:

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/CONTACT/

    I was surprised at his recent, quick comments on this incident. Seems he spoke too soon. (Yes, I voted for him.)

  2. Brian McLaughlin

    Michael — TOTALLY agree with your column here. Well put.

    Magnolia — TOTALLY agree with you too. Not sure why Obama felt the need to stick his nose into a local case when he didn’t know all the details. As far as I’m concerned, our prez just verbally sucker punched a member of law enforcement who was just following procedure. Not gonna make the law enforcement crowd real supportive of the prez, I’d say.

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