Let me offer three important caveats:
- I do not know Henry Louis “Skip” Gates nor am I that familiar with his work (though, obviously, I’ve heard of him as he is arguably one of the two or three most famous and influential African American scholars in the U.S. today);
- I wasn’t there when Gates got arrested; and/or
- My own bias is generally with Gates and Obama– that is, I do tend to think that if Gates were a white guy this wouldn’t have happened, I think that Gates was arrested mostly because he pissed the cop off, and, like our president, it would appear that the Cambridge Police handled this “stupidly.”
Having said all that, I think the one thing that I’ve seen missing from the popular press reports trying to analyze this story is about Gates’ pedigree as a very prestigious academic. Gates might be the nicest guy on the face of the earth, but I’ve got to say that most very prestigious academics have a bit of a, um, “diva” complex. So for me, it is very easy to believe that under the circumstances, Gates may have given the arresting officer a bit of ‘tude. I can imgine something like this:
Officer: Sir, we have a complaint about a break-in at this address—
Officer: The who?
Gates: I’m the freakin’ Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research!!
Officer: The what?
Gates: You really don’t know who I am or why I’m important?!
Officer: No, no sir, I don’t.
Gates: You Neanderthal. Racist pig. What is WRONG with you?!
Officer: Okay, okay, my friend, you have the right to remain silent….
I guess my point is that if you are an academic and you think you are “a big deal,” probably best to check that at the door when confronting law enforcement. My free advice.