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The Cambridge Kerfuffle Was Town vs. Gown, not Black vs. White

08/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Boston and its environs -- where it was once said that "the Cabots speak only to the Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God" -- these days distinguished Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and respected Lowell police department Sargeant James Crowley are not speaking to each other after Crowley's late-night, "disorderly conduct" arrest of Gates inside the irate Professor's suspiciously kicked-in front door.

Of course, President Obama, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the national media and numerous "talking heads" (including now ours) have chimed in to elevate the Cambridge kerfuffle into a matter of Profound National Importance. Who can deny, as Gov. Patrick put it, racial profiling is "every black man's nightmare." And who can deny the right of Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, to be peeved by President Obama's criticism of the Cambridge PD for "acting stupidly" before (as Obama himself admitted) the president himself had all the facts? For what it's worth, here's two points on this sad incident that may go against the conventional wisdom:

  • Rather than black vs. white in New England, this may have been the latest chapter of "town vs. gown" carried over from Old England. Even if Cambridge township's officer Crowley "went by the book" in arresting Harvard University's Professor Gates for "disorderly conduct," it would seem that "stupid" or ignorant is an appropriate word for Crowley's failure to recognize Gates from his ID as well as his direct encounter with the celebrated head of Harvard's African and African American Studies Department. There's no reason to believe that Crowley, who supported Obama for president and teaches Lowell cops how not to racial profile, treats blacks like "invisible men." Yet apparently, the high-ranking members of Harvard's most visible "African American" department are invisible to Cambridge's senior cops!
  • We can join President Obama and Governor Patrick (as if that were necessary!) in attesting that Professor Gates is known to be a gracious man who applies his learning to promote dialogue and debunk racism with both good manners and intellectual vigor. Having said this, we still must wonder whether Gates made a mistake when, to paraphrase Robert Frost's poem, he chose "the road more taken" by immediately turning to his friend Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree to threaten litigation for the crime of "racial profiling."

In the post-racial Age of Obama -- even if post-racialism is still more an objective yet to be achieved -- might it not have been better for Gates to have looked beyond the Ogletrees and Dershowitzes of the illustrious Harvard Law Faculty to the less combative padres of its Divinity School to provide a congenial setting for tea -- or brandy -- in the interests of reconciliation?

Thankfully, the White House has moved to save everybody's weekend. President Obama has invited Gates and Crowley to the White House "for a beer" -- and maybe "negotiations without preconditions." What a nice denouement. Who knows ... coming soon ... Capitol Hill Negotiates Health Care over a couple of near beers.

Historian Dr. Harold Brackman, a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center co-authored this essay.

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