I’ve held off on writing about Gatesgate for two weeks, because I wanted to let the dust settle, my thoughts crystalize, the evidence come in. I also wanted to be sure that what I wrote was what I wanted to say.
But believe me, as someone who is interested in both social and emotional intelligence, this affair has been compelling. We’ve got a renowned African-American scholar, presumeably at the top of his professional game, yelling at a police officer who’s investigating a suspected burglary. We’ve got the president of the United States claiming the police officers acted “stupidly.” And we’ve got the press, and bloggers, and citizens across the country engaged in a whole new dialogue about race: that is, “is the situation still so bad?”
Apparently it is.
With all due respect to Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, I don’t think he behaved well. I think he got provoked (you can read the police reports here), over-reacted, and made, frankly, a scene.
I look at it this way: If I was trying to break into my own house (and it’s happened, believe me) and a neighbor called the cops, I wouldn’t be upset. I’d be grateful. I would appreciate the fact that a) a neighbor was watching out for my property; and b) the police came by to check. I would want them to ask for my ID, because what if the person breaking into my house wasn’t me? If the police automatically deferred to the person inside the home (“oh, you answered the door! you must live here!”) they would not catch the thief. They would give him a pass to continue stealing.
Granted, I’m not a black man and I haven’t been subject to racial profiling in the past. But there’s a difference between being pulled over by the cops for no reason as you’re driving through a small town and being questioned for jimmying a door. I.e., Gates wasn’t being questioned because he was black; he was being questioned because it appeared that he entered his home by force, not with a key.
There’s a time and a place for standing up to cops. When you’re breaking into your own home is not one of them. That doesn’t mean the officers in this situation were above reproach — I’m not convinced Gates had to be arrested, because it appears that under Massachusetts law, he did nothing illegal and there are other ways the officers could have defused the escalating tension. But the escalation of this situation seems to have been initiated by Gates himself. And for that, he’ll need to take responsibility.
To his credit, though, Gates has brought the nation’s attention to the very real issue of racial profiling that does exist in this country — and that we don’t hear about when the victims aren’t famous Ivy-League professors.