I’m thinking, more and more, that the whole Henry Louis Gates thing is a racial Rorschach test. It’s a misshapen blob of an incident that, regardless of what can and should be learned from it, everybody with a strong opinion about The Important Issue of Race in America learns, once again, what they already believed.
I don’t think that’s necessary to explain what happened. I’m not, at this point, interested in discussing the actual racial aspects of their encounter, or the aftermath.
Because there is a much simpler explanation — one that might even be true — which quite fully explains the unpleasantness, the deception, and the bombastic behavior on both of their parts.
Let’s review the facts. Well, no, we can’t; we don’t have the facts. We have some of the facts, and, far as I can tell, they’re summarized pretty well here. My short version:
Guy comes home from a trip, with a driver. Front door is jammed, so he goes in through the back door, and then comes back around to try to force the front door open. Neighbor, seeing two guys apparently (and, in fact) trying to force a door open, calls 911 to report it, adding that maybe it’s not a burglary because they’ve got suitcases and might be returning from a trip or something.
Cops are dispatched, and arrive more or less promptly, but after the driver is gone, and the resident is home alone.
So far, everybody agrees on that, more or less.
The next part is unclear, to me, and not just because there’s two stories.
According to the police report, the cop — Crowley — asks Gates to step outside. This means to me that, at least according to the police, Gates was inside the house, and suggests that Crowley was outside when he was doing the asking. Okay.
According to Gates, Wikipedia says that “when the officer asked for ID, Gates replied he had to get it inside, and then officer Crowley followed him into his home without permission.” Which suggests that Gates was outside his house when asked for the ID.
I’m sensing some idiocy here. (I think both the cops and Gates are lying, actually, and each is doing so against their own best interests.) But let’s, for the sake of argument, go with this: Gates is inside his house when there’s a knock on the door, and there’s a cop there, asking him for ID. He agrees to provide it, and leaves the door open as he goes to get it; he does, and it makes clear to the cop that this is the guy who lives there, and that there’s no reason for any further investigation.
Up to this point — assuming that all that’s just what happened, and nothing more is — nobody’s done anything wrong, although at least arguably Gates has been stupid by not locking the door.
Let’s try that again, this time with a bit more sense. There’s a knock on the door, and Gates answers it — why not? — to find a cop there, demanding ID from the person inside the house. Now, he’s in his home (provided to him by the U, but it’s his home), and he’s got every right to say, “No, thank you; go away, please,” and, leaving the door locked behind him, go to bed, but he doesn’t.
Let’s let him be reasonably cooperative. “Sure. I’ll get my ID.” He does, holds it up to the door; the cop reads it, and we’re at about the same place.
Except, of course, that didn’t happen. Both men tried to pull rank, and I’m guessing that both of them did it for precisely the wrong reason — as they’re both members of classes of people who often both see themselves as beleaguered and oppressed, while both live a life of almost preposterous privilege, often seeing it as their due.
Gates is a tenured professor, and Crowley’s a cop. Both are surrounded by colleagues and sycophants — fellow tenured types and students in one case; other badged types, badge bunnies, and badgelickers in the other — who will, even without request, leap to the unfounded and often utterly preposterous conclusion that they did the right thing simply because of who they are, and both have been inculcated to believe that they have earned special respect from all they encounter because of the status that they have achieved. Both are used to having their word taken as holy writ, no matter whether or not they happen to be full of it — and, in the case of both tenured professor types and badged types, they often are full of it, and rarely called to account.
Why would it surprise anybody that when two such archtypical examples of puffed egos and manifest privilege would bump heads — regardless of their relative status as a man in his own home and a cop investigating a report of a possible break-in — it would be anything but ugly?
So, yeah, it is possible to discuss their encounter, and explain it fully, even without reference to race.