I thought I would allow the first volley of slings and arrows pass overhead before responding. It’s a good story. I am referring to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor by Police Officer James M. Crowley of the Cambridge, MA Police Department.

According to various accounts, it went something like this: Professor Gates had returned from a trip and had lost or didn’t have his house key, so he broke into his own home. He was probably tired and upset with himself for not having his keys. Neighbors saw this and called police. Officer Crowley responded to the call, apparently describing two men with backpacks, and confronted professor Gates inside his house. The police officer did not recognize Gates, a minor celebrity known to viewers of Oprah and Public Broadcasting television.

Immediately, Dr. Gates took an adversarial position with the officer, saying things like “Do you know who you are messing with?” And, according to the police report, “I’ll speak with your mamma outside.” The blue collar white officer asked for identification and Dr. Gates produced his Harvard ID. The matter could have ended at that point, especially inasmuch as the elderly Dr. Gates did not match the description of two men, who it turned out, were Gates and his taxi driver. But by that time a crowd had gathered outside and Gates continued with his verbal abuse, and Officer Crowley, asserting control of the situation, handcuffed and arrested Gates, in the presence of a black cop, and took him to the police station where charges were dropped and Gates was released.

One thing clear to me is that this was not a case of racial profiling, as many black leaders are calling it. Gates himself made that charge. It would have been racial profiling if Dr. Gates had been walking down the street and a patrol car had stopped and arrested him without suspicion. Instead, the officer was responding to a report of a break-in at a specific address and Professor Gates was the only man inside that house. Not discussed in all the brouhaha is that the policeman had to be prepared for a confrontation with an armed robber, and hearing an immediate stream of insults from the would-be perp did not help matters.

President Obama weighed in on the matter, first saying that the police had acted “stupidly,” and then backtracked, saying that he did not think that Officer Crowley was stupid.

I do not doubt for a moment that racial profiling exists in America. I have heard too many stories, and this incident has brought forth a passel more. And I don’t doubt that race played a role in the interaction between the two men. As stated above, I don’t think that race was the primary motivating factor of the incident.

Cause is important because it has to do with how we tell our stories in America. The black leaders and academics I have listened to decry the incident as yet another example of how much further America still has to go in its race relations, while white pundits tend more to emphasize the gray areas; for example, that, ironically, officer Crowley teaches a course in racial profiling and therefore is a sensitive man.

Those who wield terms like “racism” and “racial profiling” like a club tend to have the most to gain in stirring up the pot on the issue. They are professors of black studies, for example, and have made rich careers for themselves in the field of race relations. An event like this gives them an opportunity to beat their drum. It deflects attention from problems within their own community, from black racism, if your will, from the intolerable levels of violence in certain neighborhoods, where so-called “random shootings,” that is, bullets that missed their target and hit an innocent bystander, are all too common.

When Rudy Giuliani was Mayor of New York he patiently explained at press conferences when questions of the NYPD and race hit the newsstands, that the cops look for suspects based on eye witness descriptions, which include race. How else do you find street criminals? Do you simply begin arresting people at random? This never quite satisfied his critics, but it generally silenced them for the moment. That was, in part, because Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor was a tough sheriff in New York City, cracking down on street crime and quality of life issues, making New York safer for everyone, including African Americans, who are the most likely targets of street crime.

Many of the tragic shooting accidents in New York occur in confrontations between immigrants of color and the police. The immigrants don’t often speak or understand English, and act provocatively when approached by the police. Everyone who comes to town should take a crash course in street etiquette. One, when approached by cops, stop what you are doing. Two, listen to what they say, and do it. Three, don’t act provocatively and reach into your pockets. Follow these simple rules and you will most likely live to see another day.

I lived in Boston during the politically charged period of 1967-68. Once when I was walking down Beacon Hill, I saw a blue-and-white paddy wagon stop, grab a long hair youth and throw him into the back of the vehicle and drive off. This was an example of “hippie profiling.” The procedure at that time was to take said class of persons to the police station, rattle and release them. This was part of the cultural wars of the era.

Once again in Boston, I was barred at the door from attending an indoor speech by black activists at a church in Roxbury. And once, when returning from a canoe trip in the North West Territories, my friend Nick and I were asked to leave a loggers bar and restaurant on account of our long hair, which we promptly did.

The Gates incident could have been much worse. A less experienced police officer might have drawn his weapon at the abusive, gesticulating Gates. As it was, common sense prevailed and the episode ended peacefully with no one getting hurt. Feathers were ruffled and word arrows sent flying across the blogosphere. You could call the whole thing ironic, a comedy of errors. You could call it an episode in the Twilight Zone on the border of perception and reality. It’s nothing more than that, really. Duly noted, and moving on.

On Thursday, July 30th, The President and Vice President met with Dr. Gates and Officer Crowley in the Rose Garden at the White House to talk over beers. President Obama said the men had a “friendly, thoughtful conversation.”

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.