In any case, there’s a much better example of how Gates could have responded. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X tells of another encounter with the Cambridge police. In this case he was actually out with a carload of thieves burglarizing homes in a residential neighborhood. While cruising the streets they spotted a cop car making its rounds. Knowing they were about to be “profiled,” Malcolm X had an inspiration. He jumped out of the car and flagged down the cops, pretending to be lost and asking for directions. The cops bought it and the whole gang got away.
Would that Henry Louis Gates had the same kind of street smarts instead of his more predictable academic arrogance. He might have saved himself spending a few hours in handcuffs and the whole country a grueling ordeal.
I’ve seen, as I’m sure everyone has, law enforcement acting both with and without proportionality in various circumstances. The “pling,” the overall sense of the everyday citizen vis a vis the law enforcement reality, is itself not a happy tone in America. Black Americans should not be confused over this issue: white Americans are similarly unsettled by the increasing predominance of police in everyday life. In my own lifetime I have seen this increase from the marginal to the central. The reference point on this is not necessarily the rise and fall of crime rates.
I have also seen the police ignore crime and ignore their responsibilities. Where this all comes out, how far it goes, will ultimately rest on the capacity of governments at all levels in the U.S. to abuse the police power as a mechanism of imprudent policy. The police themselves, the individual officers, are generally just hard-working people trying to make it home at the end of their shifts. I always try to credit them with some benefit of the doubt until they give me reason to think otherwise.
Gates intentionally stepped across the “pling” line expecting his “do you know who I am” connections to pre-excuse his rudeness. But like most Americans, the Cambridge cops had no idea who Gates was. The racialist in this mess was Gates, and only Gates.