Friday, July 24, 2009

Heny Louis Gates and Racial Profiling

The huge story this past week has been the fallout over the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates on disorderly conduct charges (the charges have been dropped).

Gates returned to his house off Harvard Square (he'd been traveling in China) and had trouble opening his door. A neighbor saw Gates and his car-service driver trying to force the door open and called the police.

Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley arrived on the scene, and there is considerable disagreement over what happened next -- in particular, both Gates and Crowley contend that the other refused to show proper identification upon request. According to Crowley, Gates became unnecessarily belligerent, thus the arrest.

The story was being reported during the early part of this week, then it exploded into the national discussion after Lynn Sweet asked President Obama about it during his Wednesday night news conference.

Obama said that, although he didn't know all the facts, he thought the Cambridge Police had "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates after he'd already produced identification proving that it was his house.

In my mind, Obama's comment was a significant (and fortunately rare) political mis-step that could significantly increase negative perceptions of him among certain people (who want excuses to criticize him).

It's just not politically wise to criticize the police -- particularly in using as un-nuanced (is that a word?) a word as "stupidly."

Obama's comment struck me as unnecessarily provocative by its implication that Crowley arrested Gates on the initial burglary suspicion, rather than on the disorderly conduct charge. That is: Obama is correct that Gates had shown his identification, but my understanding is that Crowley made the arrest based on Gates's conduct (yelling at a police officer, etc.), and Obama glossed over that part of the story. A particular irony is that Obama is usually so precise with his language (so I assume he knows that he could have been less provocative) but then yesterday he defended his Wednesday-night comments without adding any nuance.

I will be interested to see how this plays out in the next few days, in particular whether the Administration comes out with any generalized laudatory remarks about police officers to try to blunt the negative reaction to Obama's remark.

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