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Arrest in Harvard finally comes to a head

The cop, the prof and the prez will share a beer and hopefully resolve an overextended racial drama.

July 30, 2009

Last week, the nation wrestled with nuanced questions about racial progress. Did Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley profile Henry Louis Gates Jr., arresting him more for his color than for his "crime" of being disorderly? Was Gates uncooperative to the point that he practically asked for handcuffs? Then President Obama weighed in, declaring that Crowley had acted "stupidly," preventing a one-day news item from dying a natural death. This week, the questions have turned to which beer the three men will drink today when they meet to shake hands at the White House. Budweiser? Blue Moon? Red Stripe? American or foreign?

Another question is whether the men will be able to drink at all, given how deep their feet are in their respective mouths.

Who made the first dumb move is up for debate. Gates, a Harvard professor and expert on racial dynamics in America, had just returned home from a trip to China when Crowley arrived at his door, having been sent to investigate a possible burglary. The professor ratcheted up a tense interaction with uncalled-for obstreperousness. Crowley, his department's expert on racial profiling, found no burglar but was angered by Gates' attitude and arrested him for being disorderly. That set the stage for Obama's part in this comedy of errors; he was right to question Gates' arrest but wrong to raise this issue to presidential heights.

Details of the case continue to emerge, and it now appears Crowley made assumptions that afternoon that weren't accurate -- on his own, he jumped to the conclusion that the possible intruders were black and that they had backpacks. The woman who called the police had said no such thing. By all accounts, Crowley is a good officer; it's sobering that he, of all people, would infer such facts.

A series of stupidities by all three of the leading players escalated a minor incident into the latest episode in a long-running drama: the clash of white government power as represented by a police officer and outspoken black resistance, in this case represented by a distinguished professor. For the first time, however, that drama unfolded during the presidency of a black man. No one has behaved perfectly, but today's beer gives all those involved the chance to reconsider. We'll drink to that.

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