Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that tonight is the night President Obama is hosting a small social gathering: himself, Professor Henry Louis Gates, and Cambridge, MA police Sergeant James Crowley. This follows Sgt. Crowley's arrest of Professor Gates in his own home, for the crime of losing his temper and verbally abusing a police officer, and President Obama's description of that behavior as "stupid."
Much as I'd like to be a fly on the wall at tonight's event, I don't understand what it's supposed to accomplish. It was an ugly incident that showed no one in a good light, and while "stupid" was probably not the best word to describe it before a global audience, the fact that it ended with an elderly man being led from his own home in handcuffs reflects well on no one.
Was it rooted in racism? Partly, at least -- certainly Professor Gates' perception of Sergeant Crowley's behavior was rooted in the professor's study of centuries of race-based injustice. But I'd argue that class was at least as important a factor in that encounter as race. Sgt. Crowley most likely lost his temper not because Professor Gates was black, but because he felt that Gates was disrespecting his position, his authority and his duty. I know a few police officers; nothing pisses them off more than the question, "Don't you know who I am?" as if the person asking had some special attribute that exempted them from the rules that apply to everyone else.
That doesn't excuse Sgt. Crowley's behavior. Not to put too fine a point on it, police officers are and should be trained to ignore a certain level of contempt, rudeness and even verbal abuse. The United States was founded on a fundamental rejection of absolute power, and mouthing off to a cop is our God-given right. Is it polite? No. Is it disrespectful, counter-productive, and a violation of the social contract? Yes. Is it illegal? No, unless the police officer feels himself or herself to be in immediate physical danger, or unless those words are an incitement to riot and civil disorder. Professor Gates is a small man who was on the porch of his own house. Sgt. Crowley should have let that storm of righteous indignation roll right over him, even if it included disparaging remarks about the Sergeant's mother.
So I imagine that tonight's gathering is going to start out a little sheepish, on both sides. At least, I hope so. President Obama will work his famous charm; someone might break out a deck of cards; they'll start telling stories about their grandfathers, and the evening will end with warm handshakes all around.
But it won't have changed anything.