It is amazing that biggest news story for nearly 10 days has been the arrest of a Harvard professor for disorderly conduct at his own house in Cambridge. Overshadowing the health care debate, national security and every other national concern - the story simply will not go away. It’s got all the elements of a “good television drama,” except there’s no sex or violence.
Why so much attention for such a mundane issue? The president’s involvement is obviously the chief element that has fueled the controversy. The fact that the president’s remarks showed a lack of judgment allowed his enemies to begin to circle like sharks. There is no question that partisan politics of our day loves the smell of blood in the water.
The president has deftly attempted to mitigate his personal blunder by a series of ingenious steps that will probably muffle the sound of the personal controversy of policeman-versus-professor at the center of the storm. Having the parties meet this month for a beer at the White House will rectify the president’s problems.
But there are other factors at work in this story that make it interesting to Americans. Think about it this way - by the time of the August meeting with the president, this story will have risen above the notoriety of the Rodney King arrest in LA.
For me, the Gates story has served as a sociological diagnostic tool. Like an X-ray, it has revealed problems that exist beneath the surface. More specifically, it demonstrates that the issues of race and class are still hot topics in the nation. Before I share my assessment of what we can learn from this problem and a prescription to help heal us with our preoccupation with race and class, let me enumerate the other lessons we should have learned from this real life drama.
First of all, it is obvious that the president overstepped his boundaries in calling the Cambridge policeman “stupid.” As the leader of all the people, he should not have become so partisan or emotionally involved with his comments about his friend, Dr. Gates. Secondly, it is also obvious that the Cambridge police sergeant, a racial profiling trainer, overacted in his response to the world famous professor. There is somehow another subtle overstepping of appropriate boundaries, when a professor is arrested in front of his own house. Thirdly, as I looked at the police report, I could not help but think that the professor spoke in a very haughty, condescending manner to the police officer. Ironically, the professor’s hubris may well have been worse than any racial stereotype that he felt the officer had invoked.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.