Why Obama Is Wrong About Henry Louis Gates

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Obama photoOne of the more irritating aspects of what passes for civil-rights activism in this country is the constant clamoring for a "national conversation on race." In practice, what this amounts to is blacks accusing and whites apologizing. About a dozen years ago, President Bill Clinton explicitly called for this sort of "dialogue." Now President Barack Obama has jumped into the fray. At the close of his press conference this evening, Obama denounced Cambridge, Massachusetts police for acting "stupidly" in arresting Harvard African-American Studies Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on July 16 for disorderly behavior. Yet the facts of the case - beginning with the fact that police and prosecutors soon dropped the charge - speak more about the disregard for logic and context among blacks eager to locate the latest evidence of institutional "racism." 

Henry Louis ("Skip") Gates is a reasonably competent scholar who owes his heavyweight credentials primarily to the fact that he is black. Born and raised in West Virginia, Gates, now 58, joined the Harvard faculty in 1991 following teaching stints at Yale, Cornell and Duke. As one of the university's 20 prestigious "university professors," he also is director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research. He also hosted a PBS television miniseries in 2006, "African-American Lives." In 1997, Time magazine named him as one of the 25 most influential Americans. That's pretty heady stuff. But his scholarly output has assumed an all too familiar, if nuanced, grievance-and-entitlement mentality that virtually defines black identity politics in this country. It's also apparently an extension of his personality - which as Cambridge police found out a week ago can get prickly in a hurry.

Accounts differ, but law enforcement sources assert the following. Gates last Thursday early afternoon had arrived back at the private home he rents near Harvard Square, fresh from a trip to China where he was working on a documentary film. Having found the front door jammed, he forced his way in through the back door, and with his driver's help. Normally, that wouldn't have been cause for concern. But it so happened that a passing woman notified police of suspicious behavior during the front-door phase, witnessing, as the police report put it, "two black males with backpacks on the porch," one of whom was "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry." When officers arrived, Gates already was inside and on the phone with the real estate company that manages the property. He told the cops, one of whom was black as well, that he entered through the back door and shut off the alarm.

Had Gates politely told the officers that this was a misunderstanding and laid out the details, the cops in all likelihood would have left. But perhaps unable to distinguish between an honest mistake and willful harassment, he launched into a tirade. He yelled at the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, who is white, accusing him of racial bias.  Gates simply refused to calm down. Asked to produce an ID, he snapped back, "No, I will not!" As police tried to question him, he shouted, "This is what happens to black men in America!" Crowley stated in his police report that he tried to calm Gates, but that Gates shouted, "You don't know who you're messing with." After following Crowley out the front porch calling him a "racist," police arrested him, charging him with disorderly conduct. He was booked, photographed, fingerprinted and placed in a temporary holding cell. Police did release Gates, however, after he paid a $40 fee. He then was scheduled for an arraignment on August 26 at Cambridge District Court in Medford, Mass.

Because Gates is a public figure, the case went from local to national news at warp speed. Suddenly, the Cambridge, Mass. Police Department found itself with the worst sort of publicity. This Tuesday, Middlesex County prosecutors dropped the charge. The City of Cambridge termed the arrest "regrettable and unfortunate." But to Gates, this was Round One of payback time. With the help of Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a prominent supporter of slavery reparations, Gates went on the offensive. "I'm outraged," he said in an interview with the web site of which he is founding editor (and which the Washington Post now owns), TheRoot.com. "I can't believe that an individual policeman on the Cambridge police force would treat any African-American male this way, and I am astonished that this happened to me; and more importantly I'm astonished that it could happen to any citizen of the United States, no matter what their race." He added: "There are 1 million black men in the prison system, and on Thursday I became one of them." Gates really did believe that his race caused him to be arrested. So apparently has President Obama.

At his presidential news conference tonight, Barack Obama cited local police for being stupid. But the full context of his remark suggests a worldview heavily influenced by black civil-rights radicalism:

Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.

But the idea that Henry Louis Gates is merely the latest casualty in the never-ending saga of racist profiling doesn't hold up.

First, race is a basic marker for identifying criminal suspects. Like sex, height, weight, tattoos or clothing, it's an identifiable trait that enables police officers to track down suspects without violating the rights of the innocent. If the woman making the call to the Cambridge police that evening didn't provide information about the race of the suspect, any number of whites could have been questioned or frisked. Race narrows down the range of possibilities. What is often denounced as "profiling" helps police avoid arbitrary arrests. Manhattan Institute Fellow Heather Mac Donald, who has published extensively on this subject, argues that profiling helps law-abiding black Americans, though public officials in both major parties, fearful of being called "racist" or "insensitive," would never admit to this.  Mac Donald's main point is that police can't protect the public if they are denied the opportunity to obtain basic information about potential suspects. Writing in the institute's flagship publication, City Journal, several years ago, she argued:

(F)ar more than politics is at stake in the poisonous anti-racial profiling agenda. It has strained police-community relations and made it more difficult for the police to protect law-abiding citizens in inner-city neighborhoods. The sooner the truth about policing gets out, the more lives will be saved, and the more communities will be allowed to flourish freed from the yoke of crime.

Second, related to the first point, blacks commit a disproportionate amount of crime relative to whites. Justice Department data for the period 1976-2005 show that 52.2 percent of all homicide offenders were black in cases where the race of the culprit was known, despite the fact that blacks are only 12 percent of the U.S. population.  Nobody is suggesting Henry Louis Gates is a criminal. The point is Cambridge police weren't aware of that fact when they responded to the "911" call.  Quite literally, they didn't know who they were dealing with.  It's no slam at the cops if they assumed that questioning a black suspect carried a higher risk than questioning a white one.    

Third and finally, given the professor's highly agitated behavior, police surmised that Gates might have been covering up a crime. Granted, they guessed wrong. But anyone, including whites, knows that to defy police or act belligerently when questioned by them is to risk arrest. That might not seem fair. Indeed, it isn't - on the surface. But remember something else: Cops, as public servants and as individuals, themselves live in fear of being crime statistics; they have a self-preservation instinct. A criminal suspect behaving in a threatening manner may well in the next instant pull out a gun and shoot. Police can't take that risk, even as they respect the rights of the suspect. Roughly 150 law enforcement officers in this country each year are murdered in the line of duty. That, too, is a fact that President Obama chose to overlook.

None of this has stopped America's civil-rights paladins, overdosing on emotion, from being loaded for bear. Jesse Jackson opined, "The charges have been dropped, but the stain remains...Humiliation remains. These incidents are so much of a national pattern on race." Black Enterprise magazine publisher Earl Graves, Jr. issued a similar rebuke: "Under any account...all of it is totally uncalled for." And Al Sharpton, never one to be pushed to the background, remarked after having personally spoken with a "shaken" Gates, "I've heard of driving while black, and I've heard of shopping while black. But I've never heard of living in a home while black." That was just hours before prosecutors dropped the charge. As for Henry Louis Gates, he says the affair has inspired him to do a documentary on racial profiling. No doubt the end result will add cannon fodder to the endless national "conversation on race." It's unlikely he'll have to visit China for this project.

photo: AP/Wide World

UPDATE: The Smoking Gun has put up the Gates arrest report. Because Obama said that the Cambridge Police acted "stupidly," while at the same time acknowledging he did not have all the facts, the report represents the side of the story from Officers Crowley and Figueroa.