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When It's Not So Black And White

Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian and director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, shown here in 2008, has accused the Cambridge police of racism after being arrested trying to get into his own locked home near Harvard University on Thursday, July 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
AP Photo/Josh Reynolds
As soon as President Obama was asked for his opinion about Henry Louis Gates' arrest, the details in the case were destined to get pushed into the background. Suddenly the story took on a separate existence.

All it took was for the president to go off script, dunning the Cambridge police for "acting stupidly," and you knew where this was heading.

Michelle Malkin had a fit assailing the "anti-police bigotry of the Left." The National Republican Congressional Committee, quick to spot a potential wedge issue, issued this declaration: "The president was slow to point out any wrongdoing in the wake of the Iranian election and his administration was quick to force through a failed stimulus plan even though they 'misread' the economy. This is certainly a questionable rush to judgment coming from a president who hasn't exactly been quick to call out unconscionable behavior by a merciless foreign dictator." For good measure, Little Green Footballs accused President Obama of playing the race card.

Had he been able to press the rewind button, President Obama doubtless would have chosen his words about the Cambridge police more wisely. Too late for that. But the rest of his comments shouldn't have upset many apple carts. What he offered was a very conventional assessment of police interactions with minority communities.

"The fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently, and often time for no cause, casts suspicion even when there is good cause. And that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody's going to be."

Pretty boilerplate stuff. Yet remarkably, that was enough to set off a torrent of outrage, real and manufactured, one that eclipsed what was ostensibly the real story of the evening: the administration's proposals to reform the health care system.

In the YouTube era, when everyone is potentially a news stenographer, no video or audio clips have surfaced to help establish what actually happened on the evening of July 16. Unfortunately. Because that leaves us to rely on the testimonies of Gates,, the two policemen, police report J.P. Crowley and Carlos Figueroa, and Lucia Whalen, a neighbor, who was watching from the sidewalk.

But this is America, where despite the election of an African American, the question of race still looms large. So like characters in the Japanese movie, Rashomon, your vantage point invariably colors how you interpret what went down. That accounts for the competing narratives. One plausibly can make the case that this is not "black versus white," so much as "cop versus someone the cop wants to order around." The problem in this case isn't so much one of racism as it is one of police attitudes and rules of engagement.

By all accounts, Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley is a stand-up officer. Turns out that he taught a class about racial profiling at the Lowell Police Academy. What's more, he also gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Reggie Lewis after the Boston Celtics' star collapsed in 1993 during an off-season basketball practice. At the time, Crowley was working as a police officer at Brandeis University. Hardly the second coming of Bull Connor.

For his part, Henry Gates is a distinguished professor at Harvard. More than most, he is familiar with the black community's history with the police. What went through his mind as the officer, checking out a burglary call, ordered him outside? I can't pretend to stand in his shoes but with the two men squaring off toe to toe was also two hundred years of American history.

By Charles Cooper