Professor Gates’ case is not about race, it’s about power

Here’s the story as printed by the Boston Globe on July 20, 2009. Here’s what I think really went on.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. From his Harvard University staff page
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. From his Harvard University staff page

Gates got home in the middle of the afternoon, the key got jammed in his door locking him out of his home. This was probably the last straw of a stressful, very long trip from China. He may have let out a loud string of curses that a neighbor heard. She called the police, thinking two men (him and his driver) were breaking into Gates’ home. When the police arrived, Gates had already gotten into his house. The officer (Sgt. Crowley) probably then asked to see some identification to make sure Gates was who he said he was. THAT may have been the very last straw and Gates started yelling at the Crowley, probably saying some very challenging things. We then had two alpha males, squaring off at each other. Only one had a badge, and he used it to win the battle.

Gates had all the rights of due process afforded him with the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteen Amendments of the US Constitution. But, at that place and time, Crowley had the power to arrest and detain him on nothing more than his judgment that Gates was acting “loud and tumultuous … in a public space.”

But Crowley is white; Gates is black. It is now a race issue. CNN rolled out every person of color they had on their staff, drummed up some others as pundits and ran with the race card. Lou Dobbs had an entire show last night on this, asking one inane question after another just to stoke up controversy (or run out the clock.)

But it should be a power issue. It should be an issue of why persons in the United States of America, white or black, feel that they are about to become victims at any moment in time of local authorities. Small business owners become victims of tax offices who send letters saying “you owe” a certain amount. Parents become victims of child protection agencies because someone saw them spank their child in public and cried “child abuse.” Teachers become victims of the students they seek to teach when they show a kindness with a hug, especially male teachers. Homeowners become victims of city managers who use the power of eminent domain to put walkways across their property.

I don’t fear a letter from the IRS as much as I fear a letter from the tax people from the City of Vandalia or the code compliance officer driving around Englewood in his little blue truck. For the IRS, it is never personal; it is simply a business calculation. Here is what you paid, here is what we think you owe, either defend it or pay up. With the local tax or government office, it always becomes personal. When you challenge the claim, you challenge the integrity and intelligence of the local official who decided you owe the money or the fine. If, you square off, they will use the entire resources of their office to bend you to their will. As Gates knew he should have, we bend to the will of power, pay our homage and live to fight another day. You let the small authorities win the battles so you can ultimately win the war.

But Gates had had enough of paying homage. He unwisely thought he could win the battle. He was wrong. Had he kept his mouth shut and cooperated with Crowley, he would not have been arrested and spent four hours in jail. This probably works the same with any Cambridge police officer, black or white.

President Obama knew this nuance, but he is black. And in the media, a black man can only think with his blackness. But, being a smarter man than the media, he bowed in homage to their pettiness. “Yes, you were right, it was stupid of me to say the police ‘acted stupidly*’ when Gates did as well. Mea culpa. Let’s all drink beer!”

By running with the race card instead of the local power abuse card, the media just gave up on what was the real story. The race card was easy to see, easy to frame, easy to produce. People on television are clearly white or not. It is easy to put up a black pundit against a white pundit, throw in a stupid host (yes, I said stupid) like Dobbs, tell him to stoke up the fire regardless of the discussion and that makes for great TV. Playing the race card is safer than exploring the abuse of local power because abuse of local power is too close to where we all live. We are all allowed to live safely under the US Constitution at the pleasure of the local City Council and local police. If you doubt this, get more than three people together with signs and go assert your First Amendment rights of assembly and speech in front of your local city offices. Let me know how that turns out for you.

We need the Gates’ of this world to challenge local authority, but we also need the media to recognize a situation for what it is, not the easy explanation they can spin just for the sake of a story the public can understand in seven words or less. Some people would disagree — some very loudly — but in many areas of this country, we have moved beyond race. But, we have not moved beyond power. We are still pitting the educated against the non-educated, rich against the poor, men against women, artists against businessmen, liberals against conservatives, the insured against the uninsured, employed against the unemployed, renter against homeowners, Christians against everyone else and dogs against cats. If there is a cage-match we can create for the sake of a news story, the media will create it.

But they won’t get too close to the truth. And the truth is, in America, regardless of what rights you think you have, it is always about how much power you can wield in the heat of battle. You really are on your own out there.

*The full quote is “…the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in in their own home.” Quite different in full context than just saying the “police acted stupidly.”