The Gates affair

The incident reminds me of a case near my home in Georgetown a while back. After a robbery and murder, a senior police officer advised residents to be alert to black men in the area--his point being that very few live there, so their mere presence should arouse suspicion. The comments attracted wide attention and caused an outcry.

For the police (or anybody else) to be suspicious of somebody on grounds of race alone is unjust and unacceptable, and it is surely plain bad policing too. I don't doubt that it happens all the time, and the anger of many black Americans over this seems entirely justified. I do find myself wondering, though, whether the Gates case really fits the same pattern, and whether Obama was right to react as he did.

Certainly the outcome was absurd. To cart Gates off in handcuffs for disorderly conduct after he was confronted in error in his own home is preposterous. But everybody, including Gates, is just taking it for granted that this could only have happened to a black man. Based on my admittedly limited encounters with the police, I find it easy to imagine them doing exactly the same thing to a white man.

Conforming to the pattern of learned brainlessness which seems pervasive through many US bureaucracies, public and private, the police seem obsessively preoccupied with "following procedure". If a person, black or white, becomes angry and unruly when being interviewed by an officer, I can well believe that the procedures call for handcuffs and detention. Whether the procedures cause crazy outcomes is no concern of the officer on the spot. The training seems to induce limitless tolerance for absurdity. These are the procedures. The officer has no discretion. It is all by the book.

This is the same mindset that has TSA officers dismantling the wheelchairs of sweet old ladies to check for explosives. It is also the mindset, by the way, that has prisoners like Bernie Madoff, an old man who poses no physical threat, cuffed and shackled as he is moved to and fro. I don't know what the rules called for in the Gates case, or what actually happened. But if you ask me whether the same thing could have happened to a white man, my instinctive answer would be, "Sure, why not?".

In any event, it was unwise of Obama to say the police acted stupidly--and to affirm that race was a key factor--without knowing all the facts. You'd think a lawyer would know better. On the other hand, of course, he and Gates are friends, and Obama may have found it impossible to believe that Gates could in any way have been in the wrong. Nonetheless, a milder comment, deploring the outcome--which was bad on any analysis--but not assigning blame so confidently, and not simply assuming that race was a key factor in this instance, would have been more presidential.

Anyway, so much for post-racial America.