08/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

White Police Officers and Black Men

Jim Parker is a friend of mine. He lives in Weymouth, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. We met a couple of years ago at a Red Sox Fantasy Baseball Camp in Ft. Meyers, Florida. He's a conservative Republican, a lovely guy, and a favorite of mine. He calls me "Captain" -- I captained the team we played on -- and I call him "JP."

Yesterday he sent me an email concerning the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates by a white Cambridge, Massachusetts,' police officer. Dr. Gates, a world renowned Harvard professor, who happens to be black, was arrested in his home because the police officer believed he had broken into the house, located in an upscale neighborhood near the Harvard campus. The officer refused to believe the house belonged to Dr. Gates, even when the professor showed him his Harvard ID.

Now, that's the rub of the story -- a famous black professor is arrested in his own home by a white police officer. The story is more complicated than that, with the officer alleging Dr. Gates was loud and uncooperative and accused him, the officer, of being a white, racist cop.

The story has been major news, not just in America, but also around the world. Last night President Obama was asked about his reaction to the professor's arrest and his response did not sit well with Jim Parker. So he wrote:

Hey Captain,

I have to tell you, the Commander in Chief was way out of line last night with his comments on the arrest of the Harvard professor in Cambridge. To give a throw away answer to what was most likely a planted question on a local issue was terrible. To admit to not having all the facts and then saying that the Cambridge Police Department acted 'stupidly' was uncalled for.

What's happening to this cop, the same one who gave a dying Reggie Lewis (the late Boston Celtics star) mouth to mouth a few years ago, is appalling. The president should know better.

In response I said this:

Probably the president erred in his choice of language. The question should have been answered in a broader context and not solely as it relates to the Cambridge police officer.

That said, I do believe the officer did act 'stupidly.' And yes, I read of his efforts save Mr. Lewis. I also read that he appears to be a good police officer. And yes, it is unfair that a moment like this can suddenly blow up and become world wide news, with an officer's reputation gravely damaged and his life tossed upside down, and his family, having sought no public notice, becoming the center of 24/7 news.

That's unfair and the president's comments fueled the situation, but in an odd way that will help deflect the attention from the officer and the Cambridge police, and it will become, has become, a question less of what the officer did and more as to whether the president spoke wrongly. The politics of it will take over and it will become about the president (Republicans in the Congress have already assured that).

I have read a half-dozen stories about the 'incident', but in this case and in thousands more, I give the benefit of doubt to people of color. We have a history of racism in America. It is an ugly, awful, evil history, and we live yet in its shadow -- and the election of Barack Obama lessens but does not eliminate the problem.

We took the children of God and made them subjects and slaves rather than giving them the equality God ordained and our Framer's promised. Through much of our history we have lived a lie -- and even today many white people remain in denial.

If either of us were Dr. Gates and had been so treated, while standing in our own home, facing a police officer in our living room uninvited, how might we have reacted? I allow that Dr. Gates was upset, that he was angry, and felt provoked, but the burden was on the police officer to step back, consider what was happening, and how, as a white police office in confrontation with a black man, the situation might spiral our of control -- as spiral out of control it did. You want calm from law enforcement officers in confrontations. It is one of the demands of the job -- and the officer failed it.

I am a liberal person but I do not share the anti-police bias many liberals have. The police, whether in Cambridge or San Diego, have truly difficult and dangerous jobs. Most of them perform honorably and with a high sense of public duty, but there are also those who have been corrupted by the very nature of their jobs, dealing as they so often do with unsavory characters. The mere repetition of such encounters will-hardened officers unless they work hard and have enlightened law enforcement leadership to keep a broader perspective."

I will end with this closing comment:

No white person can ever know what it's like to be a person of color in America. It doesn't matter how liberal you think you, or how enlightened, or progressive. You cannot know that experience; which is why every white person owes to every person of color the element of doubt in situations involving law enforcement.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.

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