The one thing that is clear to me is that the incident ended up with two men going all testosterone on each other, although I don't think it is reasonable to think either is personally racist. Here's why I don't think that individual racism was involved.
Henry Gates is African American and is sensitive to racial slights, as most African-American men in America are. Anyone who is familiar with the incident a few weeks ago in Dallas where a Black Houston football player was hurrying with his wife to go to Dallas' Parkland hospital where the wife's mother was dying.
The football player ran a stop sign trying to get there before his wife's mother died. The (White) Dallas police officer stopped them and simply would not let them get to the hospital in time to be there with the wife's mother died. He seemed incensed that the guy was trying to leave before the officer have him permission, although the request was clearly perfectly reasonable. The whole incident was caught on the officer's video, and the police officer was completely unreasonable, with no real reason except the probability that he felt "dissed" when an African American was disagreeing with him. Anyone familiar with such incidents knows that they are a lot more common for African-American men than for White men. Last year's well-publicized flap over a 15 year-old black teenager's case in a Paris, Texas school in which she was sent to juvenile facility for an indeterminate sentence of up to three years (and spent a year there) for merely pushing a school teacher in the hall at school demonstrated how African-Americans get a lot less leeway than White's do. So did the recent criminal case of the African American student in Jena, Louisiana. President Obama's first public reaction reflects the quite justified African-American view of the danger of police acting arbitrarily.
On the other side, Sgt. Crowley is an experienced officer who teaches about racial profiling and no doubt has justifiable pride in his race-neutral personal behavior. More important, he knows the protocol for dealing with belligerent individuals cold. He may have even written it himself. I seriously doubt that there is any significant room for judgment in the official protocol because it is designed to limit the discretion of the perhaps 10% of officers who are in fact racist.
Then, as I understand it, there was an audience, and very likely the situation was clearly one that was going to the media. That being the case, Sgt. Crowley's best course of action was to follow the protocol to protect himself and the Cambridge Police Department.
So between them, Gates was tired, a bit ill, and primed to expect the worst from the police while Crowley no doubt expected to be attacked in the media no matter what he did. Both were angry, and neither was ready to cut the other any slack.
I don't see much chance that the incident could have worked out any way other than what it did.
The next day both Sgt. Crowley and the Cambridge Police Department announced that Sgt. Crowley had acted completely correctly and that they were not going to apologize. They were defensively digging their feet in. But they had committed themselves to the actions that Sgt. Crowley had taken. he really had done everything by the book, and they did not want to demonstrate any flexibility since the book protocol did not permit it, and they did not want to have to deal with a public that expected greater flexibility when it was not warranted.
I don't see much chance that the incident could have worked out any way other than what it did. That's true even though there is no indication that either man was acting based on Racist motives. The problem was the residual effects of three centuries of slavery and Racism and an aggressive media both expected to criticize them both, especially Sgt Crowley, for whatever action they took.
The fact that neither party was acting in bad faith is a big advance in American race relations. It's good that America has come as far as it has since Truman integrated the military, but the movement to eliminate racism in America still has a way to go. Obama's effort to make it a teachable moment is an excellent move towards reducing the institutional racism that infused the situation, even though it appears that neither man involved was himself racist. I think the entire incident has created a lot of discussion that was badly needed.
Addendum 4:48 pm CDT
Mark Kleiman offers three additional very interesting notes on the Gates/Crowley confrontation. I admit that my focus has been on the possible racial nature of the confrontation which at most I have concluded was sort of a left over institutional residue of racism past. What I had overlooked was the class nature of the confrontation. In the case of class inequality, it was Henry Gates that has the advantage and Sgt. Crowley who is the clear inferior.Mark also points out that the conflict in Cambridge has a strong resemblance to the confrontation between Shari Barman and a San Diego Sheriff's deputy at a Democratic fundraiser which as recently in the news.
I'm also going to agree with Mark when he writes
Yes, cops have a hard and important job, and I've expressed impatience with some liberals who seem to be more concerned with controlling police misconduct than with controlling crime. That said, arrest for "contempt of cop" is way too frequent, way too tolerated by the police culture, way too likely to be backed up with false testimony. And that sort of misconduct is way too likely to be supported by prosecutors and way too unlikely to be punished by superiors.I live in a neighborhood that 15 years ago was declared the most crime and gang-ridden urban neighborhood in the U.S. It took intensive police effort to bring it down to the point that it is now better than most urban neighborhoods. But at the same time, I also am quite disturbed by the frequency of arrest for "contempt of cop" with the frequently false testimony to back it up and the acceptance of such conduct by police superiors.