The Gates opening

About the only thing as disappointing as the frivolous arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was the loud, almost gleeful chorus of “I told you so’s” coming from his defenders. You’ve heard of schadenfreude -- taking pleasure in the suffering of others? Well, this was the peculiar political version. It’s not that commentators were happy that Gates had allegedly been mistreated. But they seemed inordinately pleased that some aggrieved yet righteous person had come along to help them prove a point they’ve been hankering to make since Barack Obama clinched the presidency last November:

“Racism is alive and well in the United States,” one woman wrote in the comments section of the Root, the black-oriented online magazine that Gates edits. “It does not matter that we have an African American in the White House.”

“We can put all that kumbaya, we’re post-racial crap in the toilet,” wrote one contributor to the Daily Beast. And according to Gates’ friend and fellow tenured Harvard professor, Lawrence Bobo, the arrest proves that there “ain’t nothing post-racial about the United States of America.”

But the breathlessness and outsized outrage of some of the comments make me think not only that these critics are protesting too much but that they have much more at stake than Gates’ four hours in the Cambridge clink.

Once upon a time, well-intentioned people liked to think that we should judge the relative fairness of our society by how the weakest among us are treated. But if reaction to Gates’ arrest says anything, it’s that elites are suddenly the canaries in the coal mine of racial justice. The logic works like this: If a Harvard professor can be treated that way, imagine how someone without Ivy League credentials is being treated!


But is it the non-Harvards that these commentators care about? Or is this a case of a segment of the chattering class protecting its interests by refortifying an identity issue that’s been challenged by the election of the first African American president?

Just listen to the classist -- or is it just plain elitist? -- overtones of the Gates outrage, all those mentions of “brilliant,” Harvard and the New Yorker. At issue is not the overall treatment of an entire race but the apparent public devaluation of a highly decorated particular member of that race. And this from commentators who have, or want, similar notches on their resume belts. Would there be such a fuss if the black gentleman arrestee taught at Boise State and wrote for, say, Saltwater Sportsman magazine?

Let me be clear. I think the police officer overstepped. I’m also guessing that he was trying to show a condescending Harvard professor who asked for his name and badge number a lesson in humility, or at least he was behaving in the I’m-a-cop-and-you’re-not mode. But to deduce from this incident that the election of Obama isn’t really a product or a precursor of racial progress is patently absurd.

The fact is, we are not and may never be (or even want to be) a totally post-racial society, in which race has no significance whatsoever. But the color line is murky now, and black commentators’ using Gates’ arrest to argue against the historical significance of Obama’s electoral victory suggests that they haven’t come to grips with how far it has faded.

That need to match attitude to reality isn’t unique to black folks. I know upper-middle-class Mexican Americans who drive Jaguars but still see exploited farmworkers when they look in the mirror. I know wildly successful, Ivy League-educated Jews who still see WASP anti-Semites and worse around every corner.

Older minorities who have spent their lives defining themselves by the discrimination they have faced can sometimes have a hard time acknowledging that the world has changed, even as they enjoy those changes. Being discriminated against is one way they see their relationship to the world, and they’re unclear how to navigate if they concede its absence. That is what makes Obama’s election so unsettling to some blacks. Even as they rejoice in his victory, it requires them to recalibrate their view of the world and their place within it.

Professor Gates should not have been led away in handcuffs. But at the end of the day, he still earns more money, has more privileges, access, influence and, ultimately, much more power than the man who arrested him. How many of you can depend on the president of the United States coming to your defense when you have a run-in with the law?

Gates may be a momentary victim, but here’s a flash: By most measures, he’s actually one of the victors. Times have changed. It’s a good thing.