Gates dispute only reminder of problem

The controversy surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr, professor at Harvard and pre-eminent scholar on African American history, has pervaded every corner of the media since it broke on July 16. The Gates incident could be a useful jumping off point for a national dialogue about race and its consequences, a subject on which we as a country still have far to go. But without most people having a reliable knowledge of what happened, the media has paid far too much attention to the incident, and so far it appears that little common ground has been found.

Regardless of exactly what occurred between Professor Gates and Officer James Crowley, who made the arrest, the incident is part of an ugly history of racial profiling and police brutality in the United States. Gates entered the situation with a set of assumptions based on his experiences as a black man, and this undoubtedly was the reason for his anger. That doesn’t make Crowley’s actions automatically wrong, but it means that the situation should have been approached with perhaps more sensitivity than it was.

The event was at best a case of a very unfortunate misunderstanding and at worst a case of racial profiling and unequal treatment. But whatever category it falls into, this incident does not change the fact that American attitudes towards race still have far to go.

The consternation has even found its way to the White House, where the President, in response to a question, characterized the Cambridge Police as “acting stupidly” and was roundly criticized for it. While the President’s frustration with the situation is understandable, he, like so many others who saw fit to weigh in on the matter, should have refrained. With Gates and Crowley offering conflicted stories of what occurred, no one knows exactly what happened. In a case as delicate as this one, offering arm chair analysis can only be damaging, as the response to President Obama comment’s showed, justified or not.

What is unfortunate is that after the hours of TV commentary, and the much-publicized White House “beer summit,” is that the country as a whole shows no signs of having come closer to an understanding on race, overzealous policing, built-in suspicions of racism, and how those factors connect. No single incident with disputed facts will prove to skeptics that racial profiling exists, and no evidence that Officer Crowley acted appropriately will exonerate all police forces in the eyes of those who have witnessed or experienced racial profiling. But the Gates affair could serve as a catalyst for encouraging citizens and police officers of all races to bridge the gap of mistrust that sometimes divides them. Unfortunately, the only thing that has come so far is a reminder of wide this gap can be.