- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009


By common consent, the most memorable moment of President Obama’s otherwise listless press conference on health care was when he made his robust remarks on the “racist” incident involving Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge, Mass., police. The latter “acted stupidly,” the chief of state pronounced.

The president of the United States may be reluctant to condemn Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez or that guy in Honduras without examining all the nuances and footnotes, but sometimes there are outrages so heinous that even the famously nuanced must step up to the plate and speak truth to power. And thank goodness the leader of the Free World had the guts to stand up and speak truth to Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley.

For everyone other than the president, what happened at Mr. Gates’ house is not entirely clear. The Harvard prof returned home without his keys and, as Mr. Obama put it, “jimmied his way to get into the house.”

A neighbor, witnessing the “break-in,” called the cops, and things, ah, escalated from there. Mr. Gates is saying that if Sgt. Crowley publicly apologizes for his racism, the prof will graciously agree to “educate him about the history of racism in America.” That’s a heckuva deal. I mean, Ivy League parents remortgage their homes to pay Mr. Gates for the privilege of having him lecture their kids, and here he is offering to hector it away to some no-name lunkhead for free.

As to the differences between the professor’s and the cops’ version of events, I confess I’ve been wary of taking Henry Louis Gates at his word ever since, almost two decades back, the literary scholar compared the lyrics of the rap group 2 Live Crew to those of the Bard of Avon. “It’s like Shakespeare’s ‘My love is like a red, red rose,’ ” he declared authoritatively to a court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

As it happens, “My luve’s like a red, red rose” was written by Robbie Burns a couple of centuries after Shakespeare. Oh, well. Sixteenth-century English playwright, 18th-century Scottish poet: What’s the diff? Evidently being within the same quarter-millennium and right general patch of the Northeastern Atlantic is close enough for a professor of English and African-American studies appearing as an expert witness in a court case. Certainly no journalist reporting Mr. Gates’ testimony was boorish enough to point out the misattribution.

I hasten to add that I have nothing against the great man. He has always struck me as one of those faintly absurd figures in which the American academy appears to specialize, but relatively harmless by overall standards. And I certainly sympathize with the general proposition that not all encounters with the constabulary go as agreeably as one might wish. Last year, I had a minor interaction with a Vermont state trooper and, 60 seconds into the conversation, he called me a “liar.” I considered my options:

(A) I could get hot under the collar, yell at him, get tasered into submission and possibly get shot while “resisting arrest.”

(B) I could politely tell the trooper I objected to his characterization and then write a letter to the commander of his barracks the following morning suggesting that such language is not appropriate to routine encounters with members of the public and betrays a profoundly defective understanding of the relationship between law enforcement officials and the citizenry in civilized societies.

I chose the latter course and received a letter back offering partial satisfaction and explaining that the trooper would be receiving “supervisory performance-related issue counseling,” which, with any luck, is even more ghastly than it sounds and hopefully is still ongoing.

Mr. Gates chose option A, which is just plain stupid. For one thing, these days police have dash-cams and two-way radios and a GPS gizmo in the sharp end of the billy club, so an awful lot of this stuff winds up being preserved on tape. And, if you’re the one a-hootin’ an’ a-hollerin’, it’s not going to help. In the 1960s, the great English satirist Peter Simple invented the Prejudometer, which simply by being pointed at any individual could calculate degrees of racism to the nearest prejudon, “the internationally recognized scientific unit of racial prejudice.”

Mr. Gates seems to go around with his Prejudometer permanently cranked up to 11: When Sgt. Crowley announced through the glass-paneled front door that he was there to investigate a break-in, Mr. Gates opened it up and roared back: “Why? Because I’m a black man in America?”

He then told the officer, “I’ll speak with your mama outside.” Outside, Sgt. Crowley’s mama failed to show. But among his colleagues were a black officer and a Hispanic officer. That is an odd kind of posse for what the Rev. Al Sharpton, inevitably, calls “the highest example of racial profiling I have seen.”

But what of our post-racial president? After noting that ” ‘Skip’ Gates is a friend” of his, Mr. Obama said “there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.” But, if they’re being “disproportionately” stopped by black and Latino cops, does that really fall under the category of systemic racism?

Short of dispatching one of those Uighur Muslims from China recently liberated from Guantanamo Bay detention by Mr. Obama to frolic and gambol on the beaches of Bermuda, the assembled officers were a veritable rainbow coalition.

The photograph of the arrest shows a bullet-headed black cop — Sgt. Leon Lashley, I believe — standing in front of the porch, while behind him, a handcuffed Mr. Gates yells accusations of racism. This is the pitiful state the Bull Connors of the 21st century are reduced to, forced to take along a squad recruited from the nearest Benetton ad when they go out to whup some uppity Negro boy.

As Mr. Gates jeered at the officers, “You don’t know who you’re messin’ with.” Did Sgt. Crowley have to arrest him? Probably not. Did he allow himself to be provoked by an obnoxious buffoon? Maybe. I dunno. I wasn’t there. Neither was the president of the United States or the governor of Massachusetts or the mayor of Cambridge, all of whom have declared themselves firmly on the side of the Ivy League big shot. And all of whom, as it happens, are black. A black president, a black governor and a black mayor all agree with a black Harvard professor that he was racially profiled by a white-Latino-black police team headed by a cop who teaches courses in how to avoid racial profiling.

The boundless elasticity of such endemic racism suggests that “post-racial America” will be living with blowhard grievance-mongers like Mr. Gates unto the end of time.

In a fairly typical “he said/VIP said” incident, the VIP was the author of his own misfortune but, with characteristic arrogance, chose to ascribe it to systemic racism, Jim Crow, lynchings, the Klan, slavery, Thomas Jefferson impregnating Sally Hemmings, etc. And so it goes, now and forever. My advice to Mr. Gates for future incidents would be to establish his authority early. Quote Shakespeare, from his early days with Hallmark:

“Roses are red”

“Violets are blue

“Victims are black

“Like 2 Live Crew.”

Mark Steyn is the author of the New York Times best-seller “America Alone.”

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