We’ve got two separate questions at work in the Henry Louis Gates incident, which in this late-July news vacuum seems to getting more attention that it deserves.
Gates has always struck me as a very intelligent, rational person. If I was “breaking into” my own home, and if I had ID to prove it was my own home, as Gates did, I could see getting a little upset if the responding cop treated me like a criminal. If I was a black man in that same situation in a neighborhood such as Cambridge, I could see that trigger getting a little shorter.
However, if I was the cop in that identical situation? I can’t promise I would have reacted differently either. Absent evidence of the interaction between the professor and the officer, we do not know and cannot know who was most at fault. Even if we had sound and videotape, I’m sure opinions would vary.
So who was right? Who knows.
Now, the second question: Should the president have ventured into the matter?
No. He should have expressed concern and moved on. But the world is not perfect, and neither are those of us who occupy it. In expressing sympathy for Gates, Obama acknowledged and expressed the justified frustration that many black Americans feel in general about interactions with the police. I can’t blame him for that.
But in a perfect world, given his position, Obama would have explained that history without impugning the individual officer involved. His error was in translating the general problem into a specific criticism.
It’s not pretty, but this is how our national conversation about race continues. It’s all good in the end.