Apparently being chastised by the President is not sitting well with police departments. But let's clear up two things. The first is that being told you did something "stupidly" does not mean that you are stupid. There is a big difference between the two, and I would have to agree with the President that the police acted stupidly in this case. The second issue is that there is no way any police department in this country can say that they are above reproach on this issue. I value the work they do and thank them for putting their life on the line everyday, but they are still open to being criticized.
Even if Gates was acting belligerently, the courts have repeatedly ruled that police officers must be willing to take the abuse directed at them more than can be expected of a regular person and not act on it because of the position they hold. If, as Gates contends, the officer refused to give his name and badge number then he leaves even more to be desired in proper conduct for a police officer. Let's not forget that Gates had already proven that he was not breaking into the house because it was his house (actually it's Harvard house which should have sent off all sorts of bells in the officer's head that this might be an important person, but apparently it didn't). If I was to prove to a police officer who believes that I'm breaking into a house that it is my house and he didn't immediately say "Sorry. Have a nice day." and walk away I might be belligerent too. Of course the likelihood of that happening to me as a white man is limited.
We live in a society in which white privilege is the norm. I can do things without ever being seen as questionable because I am a white male. That comes with extreme amounts of privilege and advantage in this society. It is little wonder that the black community is so up in arms about this because this serves as another reminder to them that they are not safe from harassment regardless of position, class or wealth. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is one of the best, brightest and most respect academics in this country, who also happens to be black. But, for many people in this country they will never see the first part because they cannot see past the second part. I do not believe that the police officer or the neighbor are overtly racist, but I do believe they have inherent racism that is part of them, because it's part of our culture and society and is even a part of me. The simple fact is we live in a society in which the black man is a person to be feared. Is it better than it's been in the past, most certainly. The fact that we have a President who also happens to be black is a sign of vast improvement but it does not mean the fight is won.
Black's are still stopped by police at a much higher rate than are whites, and much more likely to be charged with a crime, prosecuted and imprisoned than are whites as well. The last town I lived in had a similar brush with infamy as what is happening now in Cambridge, when they pulled over and arrested a man matching the description for someone who had committed a crime in Boston. The description, "a black male in his twenties." As it turned out, the black male they arrested was a member of the Boston Celtics who happened to live in the town. His real crime? He was a black man, driving a nice car through a lilly white community.
When I preached on this issue at our sister church in Dorchester last spring, the remarks made to the congregation after I was done was a reminder to the community that if you are pulled over, to do everything the police ask of you and not to antagonize them. That statement would never be made from the pulpit here because it doesn't need to be, and that seems to be what Gates biggest crime was. He got uppity. It is also what has some in the black community upset. Of all people, they claim, Gates should know what to do, but he assumed because of his position that he was equal to others. He forgot where he was and where he lived. This just serves as another sign to many in the black community, rightly or wrongly, that they are not equals in this society. That even when they reach the pinnacle of social and cultural respectability that to many people they are still nothing more than just a black.
Being white has its privileges and the sooner we recognize that and all it entails the sooner we will begin to truly work on being a post racial country, but until that happens, race still matters.