Last night President Obama said he didn’t know “what role race played” in last week’s arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his home in Cambridge. But it’s clear that race played an important role, if only because Gates was convinced that Sgt. James Crowley, who came to his house in response to an erroneous burglary report, would have treated a white man less suspiciously and more respectfully. By Gates’ account, what really angered him is that Crowley continued to question him even after he explained that he had been forcing open a jammed door to his own house and showed identification confirming that he lived there. The main difference between the two men’s versions of events is that Crowley, who ended up handcuffing Gates and arresting him for disorderly conduct (a charge that was dropped on Tuesday), portrays Gates as more belligerent and louder than Gates portrays himself. But even if we accept the facts as presented by Crowley, it’s clear he abused his authority, whether or not the color of Gates’ skin had anything to do with it.
Let’s say Gates did initially refuse to show his ID (an unsurprising response from an innocent man confronted by police in his own home). Let’s say he immediately accused Crowley of racism, raised his voice, and behaved in a “tumultuous” fashion. Let’s say he overreacted. So what? By Crowley’s own account, he arrested Gates for dissing him. That’s not a crime, or at least it shouldn’t be. Instead of admitting that he “acted stupidly” (as Obama put it) in the heat of the moment by deciding to punish Gates for hurting his feelings, Crowley continues to defend his conduct, refusing to apologize.