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Prof. Gates, Cambridge and Racial Politics

The "On The Marc" column is written by The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, CBS News' chief political consultant.

In college, some of my friends majored in history. Others braved the pre-med gauntlet. My eventual partner in life decided that applied mathematics was right for him. I graduated in 2001 with a degree in something or other, but my concentration was really in what you might call police scanner science.

For three years, I covered the police beat for the Harvard Crimson, which was -- is -- the city of Cambridge's only breakfast table daily. When my friends would be out studying or dating, I'd be chasing cops. If the crime happened to be near Harvard's campus, I'd get there before they would, which occasionally proved disconcerting.

During my four years at Harvard, I got to know quite a few Cambridge police officers -- black officers, white officers, Hispanic officers, and I became intimately familiar with the tinder box that is racial politics in Cambridge.

In essence, take wealthy white patricians affiliated with Harvard, add very liberal activists (not always so rich) who were attracted to the city because of its progressive legacy; add diversity that mirrors the composition of the United States; add blue collar, mostly ethnic white cops who were lifers in the police department -- and it's not hard to see how racial sensitivities could be so acute.

What happened to Prof. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., has actually happened fairly often. And often, it involved young white students being strung out by overaggressive cops on generally bogus "disorderly conduct" charges, which was the Cambridge police officer's catch-all charge for "generally just pissing me off and acting holier than thou."

Indeed, college kids in Cambridge often showed disrespect for the cops, so it's not surprising that the cops felt disrespected by the students.

I remember listening one night to a report of a loud party in the Kendall Square neighborhood by MIT. A single-cop car arrived. He was white. The partygoers, about a dozen of them, were black.

It's sensible in 1 on 12 situations -- even for something as relatively minor as a quality of life complaint -- for the cop to call for back-up. The cop did. At some point before the back-up arrived, a scuffle began.

Who touched whom was unclear, at least over the police radio. Within 5 minutes, more than a dozen Cambridge officers were at the scene -- most of the entire city's night shift deployment. 12 on 12. The cops are thinking that one of their guys is in trouble, and the partygoers are thinking that the cops have shown up because they are black. More scuffling. People are arrested. Lawsuits are filed.

Cambridge cops go through arduous training and reams of sensitivity classes. The force is very diverse now and black police chiefs are common. The city's standard operating practices are now in the national spotlight.

I don't know what happened that night -- everyone seems to assume that the white officer who first responded made a conscious or unconscious mental linkage between "black man" and "fancy home" and concluded "break in."

Gates was understandably angry that he was being harassed in his house, mouthed off to the police officer (legal, but never, ever a good idea), and was hauled away in cuffs for being too loud, apparently.

The officer defends himself; a neighbor reported a break-in; the officer went to the house expecting to see someone breaking into a house; indeed, when he arrived, Gates was breaking into a house.

The officer will go his grave being convinced that he was following police procedure, and Gates will probably never be convinced that his race was not the prime factor in his brief detention.

I'd bet that most police officers across the country, even non-racist officers, are sympathetic to the officer. President Obama, meanwhile, has weighed in on the side of Professor Gates, calling the department itself "stupid."

That's a harsh conclusion based on what we know -- Gates has always had a flair for the media, and his side of the story has been embraced by liberals looking for evidence that racial animus remains an enormous problem in this country.

Maybe they're right. But I'm betting that the president will walk back on his remarks a bit. He has shown a unique ability to understand how different points of view often lead to unnecessary conflicts like this one.