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

Gates and Crowley: Through a Racist, Classist Lens Darkly

There's a lot of talk about racism in connection with Skip Gates' arrest. There's no doubt that race played a huge factor in the interaction between the professor and the police officer. But race wasn't the only thing standing between these two men--class was also. When it comes to the intersection of race and class, class tends to disappear.

If we make the assumption that racism was in play in this event, but that Crowley was not necessarily a racist, we might also assume that class and social status were at play as well. Professor Gates is probably one of the highest paid academics in the world. He is a superstar famous not only among scholars but known by the general public as well. As a black man, he might well be upset at his treatment, but as a member of the power elite (Barack counts him as a friend, as does Oprah, Cornell West, and a host of other powerful people), he might well have been outraged to be treated just like another American citizen facing the indignity and affront of a police questioning.

Crowley was among other things a working class man doing his job (he was called to the location, he didn't initiate the action). He saw it as his duty to ask for ID that would show that the Gates and the taxi driver had some provable connection with the house they had broken into. Gates assumed that showing his Harvard ID (which did not indicate that he lived in this house) was a sufficient guarantee of his trustworthiness. But he balked, apparently, at showing his driver's license, which would have had his home address on it and verified that all was well. He also refused to answer the question "Is there anyone else in the house?"

While I have no doubt that Gates was outraged at being questioned in any manner in his home, but particularly given the widespread profiling of black men in general, I also am sure that Crowley was experiencing a one-up-man-ship from Gates saying, in effect, I'm a top scholar at the top educational institution in the US. How could I be committing a crime?

Gates was most probably pulling rank on the basis of class and social status. It is understandable that Crowely might have been offended in his own right, and used his position of power as a police officer to enforce his right to have certain information. Things obviously spiraled out of control as race met class and chaos ensued.

We can and should see this event in the light of a continuing racism in the US. And fortunately we have a president who can highlight the role of race in this event. But who will be the spokesperson for class? Why is it acceptable for a member of the power elite to assume he or she can show some bona fides and be released from a civil obligation to establish innocence in an ambiguous situation?