It has been two weeks since his arrest by Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. still needs an attitude adjustment.
That's what my father's generation of old-school law enforcement officers was known to provide now and then when someone mouthed off, or lobbed insults, or challenged their authority.
Today, folks on the job refer to this sort of thing as "contempt of cop." It's not illegal, but it's also not smart thing if you have an aversion to handcuffs and steel bars, since there are plenty of other things for which you can be arrested. Just ask Gates, who was written up for "loud and tumultuous behavior" at his house.
What needs adjusting isn't Gates' attitude toward law enforcement; that's between him and the police. The real problem is his presumptuous attitude toward the rest of us. The professor needs to stop calling what happened to him a "teaching moment." We're not his students. More importantly, we're not the ones who let our ego get the best of us and went ballistic over a simple and harmless request to provide identification.
And how unreasonable was that request given that Gates' house had been broken into on a previous occasion? I bet Gates wonders: "Where were the police then?" The experience of becoming a crime victim has a way of turning a liberal into a conservative. And what about the passerby who called police to tell them that two men were trying to break into the house? Gates probably wishes someone had called the police during that earlier incident.
The only person who needs to learn a lesson from all this is Gates, and the syllabus for that course should include a few lines about the proper way to interact with police officers. I'm surprised that, with all the knowledge that Gates has acquired on the way to becoming one of the nation's most renowned public intellectuals, he never learned how to talk to a police officer — and how not to talk to one.
The answer is politely and with deference, with the goal of diffusing tension rather than exacerbating it. And this is universally true, whatever your color or the color of the officer.
Gates also sounded a tad naive when he said that the incident "made me realize ... how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable all people of color are and all poor people to capricious forces." He has spent his career chronicling the African-American experience, and he just realized this now? That speaks to how detached the Harvard professor is from his own subject matter.
Besides, this incident wasn't about racial profiling — a concept that Crowley is well acquainted with since, for five years, he has taught police academy recruits how to avoid it. What this incident was really about was Crowley trying to control a situation that was quickly getting out of control.
That point seems lost on President Obama, who said that the Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" only to walk back on that statement a couple of days later. At moments like this, Obama seems to be struggling between the responsibility he feels to offer the country some special insight into such matters as the first black president and the desire to be post-racial. It's a difficult tightrope to walk, and the Gates' arrest made the president lose his footing.
Obama tried to make peace with Crowley by inviting him — and Gates — to the White House for a beer. It's a nice gesture. But what concerns me is that Obama also said that he sees this incident as a "teachable moment." Oh dear. Just what does the president think is the lesson from all this, and who does he think needs to learn it?
As Crowley enters the premises of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he should be careful. I hope he doesn't find himself cast as racially insensitive or on the wrong end of a lecture about how to do police work by those who have never had to do it. After all, nothing ruins a good beer like the taste of condescension.
Write the author at email@example.com.
THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE