In all the coverage of the Henry Louis Gates arrest, there are two things I have not seen mentioned:
(1) Race relations in the Boston area are among the worst I’ve experienced. The contrast between the Boston area and New Bedford is astounding — as a white guy in the Boston area, I find it that almost any encounter with someone who is black is fairly tense, even when both people are friendly towards one another; here in New Bedford, there is far less racial tension. Given the racial tension in the Boston area, any encounter between a white cop and a black man is going to start off tense. I would expect tension to escalate quickly unless one of the persons involved is very calm.
(2) Working class Cambridge residents aren’t exactly buddy-buddy with Harvard professors. In fact, there’s a big divide in the entire Boston area between those who identify positively with Harvard, and those of us who don’t. The people who don’t identify with Harvard are liable to be prejudiced and think of Harvard people as snobbish, egotistical, and overbearing. And perhaps those who identify with Harvard are liable to be prejudiced and think of the rest of us in terms that are not entirely complimentary.
You can see this dual prejudice playing out in the encounter between the Cambridge cop and the Harvard professor. Here’s how the story would be told from the cop’s point of view: Cambridge cop asks Harvard professor to identify himself; at first Harvard professor refuses, then instead of showing his driver’s license he pulls out his Harvard I.D., and when Cambridge cop asks for a government-issued I.D., Harvard professor starts yelling. Here’s how the story would be told from the professor’s point of view: while in own house, Cambridge cop with working class accent asks Harvard professor for I.D., then cop refuses to accept Harvard I.D. (!!), and refuses to listen to rational, reasonable explanations.
My conclusion: both parties are at fault, and each man should apologize to the other. The cop should have apologized immediately, because as a public servant it’s really part of his job, and his supervisors should require him to apologize before race relations get any worse in Cambridge. The Harvard professor should recognize that while race played a major factor in this encounter, class divisions and town/gown divisions also played a significant role; but I don’t think Gates really understands the deep, raw, vicious class divisions that exist in New England, so I can’t imagine him ever apologizing.
I hope Gates’s arrest promotes a widespread and rational conversation about race relations in the United States. I wish it would also promote a discussion about class divisions, but I don’t see that happening.