By Eugene Robinson
If race were the only issue, there would be much less hyperventilation about Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.‘s unpleasant run-in with the criminal justice system. After all, it would hardly be the first time a black man had unjustly been hauled to jail by a white police officer. The debate—really more of a shouting match—is also about power and entitlement.
This is a new twist. Since the triumph of the civil rights movement, minorities have been moving up the ladder in politics, business, academia, just about every field. Only in the past decade, however, has a sizable cohort of African-Americans and Latinos broken through to the tiny upper echelons where real power is exercised.
I’m talking about President Obama, obviously, but also Citigroup Chairman Richard Parsons, entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and many others—a growing number of minorities with the kind of serious power that used to be reserved for whites only. In academia, the list begins with “Skip” Gates.
He’s a superstar, one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed faculty members at the nation’s most prestigious university. A few years ago, when he made noises about leaving, Harvard moved heaven and earth to keep him. The incident that led to his arrest occurred as he was coming home from the airport after a trip to China for his latest PBS documentary. Following the traumatic encounter, he repaired to Martha’s Vineyard to recuperate. This is how the man rolls.
Obama’s choice of words might not have been politic, but he was merely stating the obvious when he said the police behaved “stupidly.” Gates is 58, stands maybe 5-feet-7 and weighs about 150 pounds. He has a disability and walks with a cane. By the time Sgt. James Crowley made the arrest, he had already assured himself that Gates was in his own home. Crowley could see that the professor posed no threat to anybody.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Crowley’s version of the incident is true—that Gates, from the outset, was accusatory, aggressive and even obnoxious, addressing the officer with an air of highhanded superiority. Let’s assume he really recited the Big Cheese mantra: “You have no idea who you’re messing with.”
I lived in Cambridge for a year, and I can attest that meeting a famous Harvard professor who happens to be arrogant is like meeting a famous basketball player who happens to be tall. It’s not exactly a surprise. Crowley wouldn’t have lasted a week on the force, much less made sergeant, if he had tried to arrest every member of the Harvard community who treated him as if he belonged to an inferior species. Yet instead of walking away, Crowley arrested Gates as he stepped onto the front porch of his own house.
Apparently, there was something about the power relationship involved—uppity, jet-setting black professor versus regular-guy, working-class white cop—that Crowley couldn’t abide. Judging by the overheated commentary that followed, that same something, whatever it might be, also makes conservatives forget that they believe in individual rights and oppose intrusive state power.
There was a similar case of collective amnesia at the Sonia Sotomayor hearings. Republican senators, faced with a judge who follows precedent and eschews making new law from the bench, forgot that this is the judicial philosophy they advocate. The odd and inappropriate line of questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., about Sotomayor’s temperament was widely seen as sexist, and indeed it was. But I suspect the racial or ethnic power equation was also a factor—the idea of a sharp-tongued “wise Latina” making nervous attorneys, some of them white male attorneys, fumble and squirm.
Is a man of Gates’ station entitled to puff himself up and remind a policeman that he’s dealing with someone who has juice? Is a woman of Sotomayor’s accomplishment entitled to humiliate a lawyer who came to court unprepared? No more and no less entitled, surely, than all the Big Cheeses who came before them.
Yet Gates’ fit of pique somehow became cause for arrest. I can’t prove that if the Big Cheese in question had been a famous, brilliant Harvard professor who happened to be white—say, presidential adviser Larry Summers, who’s on leave from the university—the outcome would have been different. I’d put money on it, though. Anybody wanna bet?
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group