Obama said, of the Gates incident, that it shows “how race remains a factor in this society.” This remark is quite correct, but perhaps not in the way that most people might think.
Some people see the incident as yet another example of the racism of white police and how blacks are mistreated by law enforcement. To be fair, there are good grounds for people to be concerned about racism in the context of the police. However, to assume that the incident must involve racism on the part of the officer simply because he is white and Gates is black would itself be racist. Interestingly, the incident does seem to involve racism-but it seems to be racism about whites rather than blacks.
The situation began with a neighbor calling the police because someone was seen breaking into Gates’ house. When Crowley arrived and asked Gates to step outside, Gates apparently said “”Why, because I’m a black man in America?” While Gates might have been honestly upset, the officer was following standard police procedures and acting, as far as it is known, in a reasonable way. The officer’s job was to determine the nature of the situation and to ensure public safety. He seems to have done that job properly.
Gates, in contrast, seems to have needlessly over-reacted to the officer and thus created an incident out of nothing. While Gates does have good grounds to be worried about racist police, Crowley does not seem to have done anything to merit Gates’ reaction. If so, then it would seem that it was Gates who was being a racist-he assumed that Crowley was doing what he did simply because Crowley is white and he, Gates, is black. Likewise, the people who are assuming that Crowley must have acted on racist motivations because he is white are also falling victim to racism.
At this time, there seems to be no evidence of racism on the part of Crowley. As noted above, he followed standard procedures and acted within the law. In short, Gates seems to have been treated like anyone who did the same thing he did would be treated. Crowley also has no history of racism and has, interestingly enough, taught a class on racial profiling for five years.
Despite the lack of evidence of racism or improper actions on the part of Crowley, Gates has said that “This is not about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America.”
Gates is quite right to be concerned about how black men are treated by the police and America has a long history of racism that provides rational grounds for worry. But, Gates’ arrest does not seem to be a case in which a vulnerable black man was needlessly hassled by a white cop. I do suspect that Gates honestly believes that he was hassled because he is black and the officer is white. Gates did not see a cop doing his job and following proper procedure. Gates saw a white cop who was there to hassle him. He then acted in accord with this perception, thus getting arrested. Obama also saw (or seems to have seen) a white cop hassling a black friend of his, and he acted in accord with his perception of the situation. Thus, Gates and Obama both serve as examples of how race is still a factor in how people perceive the world.