Henry Louis Gates arrest: it's never a good idea to get angry with the police | Michael White

Why was a brilliant 58-year-old scholar unable to talk down a less educated cop trying to do his difficult job in the scholar's own home?

Here's a tricky one. Henry Louis Gates is a distinguished American scholar of whom I had actually heard before he was arrested on suspicion of breaking into his house in Cambridge (theirs, not ours). As the Guardian reported this morning, he's pretty cross about it and the US airwaves, blogosphere and twittersphere are all excited too.

Of course, it's about race. Professor Gates (did I mention he's a Harvard man and has 50 honorary degrees?) had just got back from a trip to China and had trouble getting into his front door. A passerby saw him – and the taxi driver – trying to force it open and called the police.

As Ed Pilkington reports, it fell to "the hapless Sgt James Crowley" to investigate. White cop ends up arresting eminent black academic. Cue outrage. Prof Gates attributes the entire incident to a racial narrative in Sgt Crowley's head: "black guy breaking and entering."

Fair enough, but here's where it strikes me as tricky.

Let's assume that the cop has not even one degree, let alone 50. He's sent as a result of a tip-off and, quite possibly, he did fall into habits of racial profiling. Bank fraud? White guys in braces. Breaking and entering? Black guys ("My, this one looks 58, they're getting older every year. Nice shirt though").

I've checked much of the US media and the story everywhere is much the same. Gates wasn't initially taking calls, though he spoke later to the Washington Post. So the police version of events is what we know: it has Gates blowing a fuse and ending up charged with disorderly conduct – though the charges were dropped when the story hit the press.

What happened? Crowley asked Gates, by now alone and in his house, to step outside and identify himself. He refused ("Why? Because I'm a black man in America?") and asked for Crowley's ID. Outside they traded IDs, but by the sound of it things were way past all that.

The prof allegedly accused the cop of racism and warned him "who he was messing with". The result: four hours in the slammer.

I wasn't there, you weren't there; how can we know what happened? But Gates has spent a lifetime immersed in the history of African-Americans and all the dreadful things done to them. My hunch is that the very thought of being arrested in his own home triggered both memory and anger.

That might explain why a brilliant 58-year-old scholar with almost one degree for every year of his life can't talk down a less educated cop trying to do his difficult job in the scholar's own home. As a Washington Post writer explains it's never a good idea to get angry with men in uniform – and Crowley was only following routine procedure.

That's the trouble with anger: it's a good servant, but a bad master. Lots of people have cause for anger, both good and insufficient (I do myself and let it off the leash more than I should), but a Harvard professor has surely done well enough in life to work it through in the age of Barack Obama. Yes?

Three relevant examples. John Lewis, a veteran black Atlanta politician musing on Obama's success, told a friend of mine that perhaps civil rights veterans such as himself were still too angry. The president missed all that stuff – far away on Hawaii – and is strikingly without visible rage. That may have been a key to his success with millions of white voters.

Compared with millions of African-Americans still near the bottom of the heap, Obama doesn't have much to complain about, though he reminded them the other day not to feel too sorry for themselves and to raise their ambitions.

Nelson Mandela has a great deal to be angry about: locked up for 27 years on a tiny, arid island within tantalising sight of the beauties of Cape Town. But it wasn't just his intelligence and character that sustained him into the presidency of a new South Africa. It was that Mandela emerged from captivity without anger or the urge to bloody vengeance.

Remarkable, I agree, but somehow I think Mandela would have talked Sgt Crowley round. Plenty of people out there are like the very human Professor Gates – not just about race either – but plenty are more like the saintly Mandela, willing to ignore and/or forgive slights, real or imagined.

A few weeks ago the Observer carried an interview from Afghanistan with senior aircraft woman Iphie Modu, a 29-year-old Briton of Nigerian stock. She's in uniform out there as she works her way to her career goal, becoming a military lawyer.

"Being a woman has been better than I thought it would be – you get cut a bit of slack. And race hasn't been an issue. I find that decent people treat you decently." Not all non-whites feel that way in the army, she concedes. "It's an individual thing, not a military thing."

Yes indeed.


Michael White

The GuardianTramp

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