THE BLOG
08/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

So What Do the Gates Calls Show?

Now we know. Police in Cambridge, Mass. have made public the 911 cell phone conversation that led to Harvard University Professor Gates' arrest at his home. Now we know that the concerned citizen who called police did not identify Gates and his driver as black men.

So based on this new information, should we now conclude that race was no factor in the case? Should we now conclude that police would have acted in the exact same fashion had Gates been a white man?

We will never know for sure, but one thing is certain: there is some reason to suggest that police behavior -- in Boston, in Chicago, in New York, in any major city in this country -- is affected by racial stereotypes.

Indeed, lots of human behavior is affected by racial stereotypes.

Henry Louis Gates, while a highly-respected intellectual, stands in our society as a black man. We cannot ignore the fact that black men, and black women, are often treated differently.

Take for example, the college students I teach.

My students -- most of whom are black -- tell me repeatedly that when they walk into any store in the mall, they are not seen first of all as upstanding young people from the state university, many of whom carry GPAs of 3.5 or above. They are seen instead as young black kids who might rip off merchandise from store shelves.

Thus, the black students say that they are often followed. And asked, in a pointed way, what exactly they are shopping for in the store.

This past semester, teaching at Georgetown, in a class that was completely white, I asked the students -- same age, same basic profile (smart college kids) -- if they are followed when they shop.

None of them reported ever having had that experience.

So, do we have, in the Gates' case, a perfectly appropriate police reaction?

I don't know, and I'm not sure anyone else knows either.

But consider this: how news reports are hammering Gates for his "unruly" and "uncooperative" reaction to police.

If some cop comes to your door and tells you to leave your home would you be upset? Would you perhaps get a little unruly? Might you be a tad "uncooperative"?

As I understand it, Gates called Harvard University security to come to his assistance, to attest to his identity. To me, that was smart thinking.

Are we holding Gates to a different standard?

Are we holding the President to an unfair expectation? Should we expect him to deny his own experience as a black man and pretend that racial profiling doesn't plague modern society?

For a wonderful commentary linking the Gates' case with the astonishing effort among "birthers" who persist in challenging Obama's place of birth, read Stanley Fish's opinion piece today in The New York Times.