24 July 2009

Gates, part 2: Let's "Skip" the Formalities

Turning on the TV this morning revealed a heated debate on MSNBC between Mika Breszinski and two black commentators on the Gates controversy. Breszinski complained that she's received a lot of hate mail due to her determination to analyze the incident objectively. Today she seemed determined to defend the arresting officer from any imputation of racism. This is fair, since it was the nosy neighbor rather than he who was really guilty of "profiling" Professor Gates. We've learned that the cop actually runs seminars on profiling, i.e. against it. If anything, this fact probably increased his own anger when Gates accused him of racism. But the race angle may be causing people to keep track of the real issue. Breszinski, for instance, believed that she had scored a decisive debating point by asking, "Who made this about race?" and pointing out that, as she sees it, Gates was guilty on that score. I wonder whether this rhetoric could cloud people's minds to the point where they believe that Gates was arrested for "making it about race." You could argue that he was to the extent that his allegedly abusive language had a racial context, but some observers could be convinced pretty easily that it was the presumption of racism itself that made Gates's anger abusive and disorderly, or, worse, that he deserved what he got by trying to inflate a routine police inquiry into a racist incident. Even one of the black commentators, Eugene Robinson, insinuated that Gates might have overplayed his hand by making an issue of his celebrity or connections, having heard that the professor had used the "do you know who I am?" gambit on the policeman. But all this close analysis of Gates's remarks obscures the fact that his conduct is perfectly excusable in the context of the gross mistake that brought the cop to his door in the first place. If Gates didn't go after the officer with his cane, then, given the nature of the incident, the policeman has no business complaining if Gates insulted him or questioned his political correctness. In fact, this fact has been acknowledged by the charges being dropped. Maybe that ought to mean more than any apology that Gates can demand and that the cop refuses to give. But the person who really ought to apologize, and as publicly as possible, is the neighbor who sicced the police on the professor and started the trouble. I wonder if the officer would agree with me. If he'd say that, he might go a long way toward defusing the controversy.

Update, 4:30 p.m. Under pressure from police unions, the President has moved to the first line of retreat from his Wednesday remarks, uttering the commonplace formula that "acted stupidly" was a "poor choice of words," while not apologizing for the content of his comment. He has called the arresting officer to reassure the individual of his esteem for law enforcement, though whether the officer will accept such reassurance without an apology attached is unclear. The thin blue line has formed in the policeman's defense. A black officer who was also at the Gates house vindicates his brother officer's conduct, noting that Gates was acting strange. An interracial group of gendarmes deplores the President's words. Yet another misunderstanding, it seems, has evolved during the day. The police seem to think that "acted stupidly" is synonymous with "racist cop." They may infer this because the President dared talk about race when invited to comment on the scandal of Gates's arrest, but you can just as easily assume that Obama meant that it was stupid to arrest a homeowner, no matter how angry he got, after you've mistakenly inquired whether he was breaking into his own home. At least that's how I see it. It looks like both the professor and the policeman showed thin skins on that famous day, but the policeman should be obliged to grow thicker skin. Meanwhile, the neighbor (a woman, by the way) still refuses to speak publicly on her mistake.

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