The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Vol. 8, Issue 17

With everyone sounding off about the recent arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. -- and the subsequent brouhaha complete with the usual charges of racism, and even the President of the United States chiming in (without necessarily checking all his facts) -- Etiquetteer sees no reason not to join the discussion. Long story short, both Professor Gates and the arresting officer, Larry Crowley, are at fault and should apologize. A little Perfect Propriety could have prevented this scandal. Etiquetteer does sympathize with Professor Gates up to a point. It is a terrible thing to be locked out of one's home; Etiquetteer himself has been locked out of his home with nothing but his pajamas and a migraine, and can offer True Compassion on that point. It's doubly terrible to return home after a long overseas journey (and we all know how difficult air travel is) to find oneself locked out of one's home. And then it's triply terrible to be mistaken for a burglar burgling one's own home by law enforcement! 

But, as Etiquetteer's mother has often said, "When you lose your temper, you lose your point." And according to the police report, helpfully provided by The Smoking Gun, Professor Gates played the race card as soon as Officer Crowley arrived at his home. Had he introduced himself, indicated that he was in his own home and, most importantly, done so without yelling, this need not have happened.

Etiquetteer has been contemplating all day the arrogance of elite college faculty, snobbery and disdain that operate completely outside race. And lo and behold, Joan Venocchi of The Boston Globe made the same connection in her column. The clue to Gates's true behavior is the phrase "You have no idea who you're messing with," a close cousin to the Six Worst Words in the American Language, "Don't you know who I am?!" And once someone starts to pull that kind of attitude, it's over. And then calling the police and asking to speak to the chief . . . now honestly, who gets to speak to the chief? Did Professor Gates think that his position as a Harvard faculty member made him important enough to talk to the chief? Etiquetteer does not think so.

That said, there's no reason Officer Crowley could not have given his name and badge number when requested, even though he had identified himself the first time Professor Gates asked him. And he should not have arrested Professor Gates, for two reasons. First, Professor Gates was, in fact, in his own home. Second, the spectre of Professor Gates yelling on his front lawn after the police left would have made a very poor impression of him on his neighbors, an impression of his own making.

It's unfortunate to Etiquetteer that this national discussion will be cast in terms of racism instead of elitism. Good manners on everyone's part would have kept this from happening:

  • Professor Gates should have kept his voice down, even though he was undoubtedly tired, frustrated, and angry.
  • He should not have followed Officer Crowley out of the house continuing to yell at him.
  • Officer Crowley should have identified himself each time he was asked.
  • Officer Crowley should not have arrested Professor Gates. Even though he must have felt justified in doing so, it smacks of vengeance.

Etiquetteer asks them both to remember the cry of Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?" The time has come for each of them to make up and shake hands. Etiquetteer just hopes they won't do that on a talk show.

Etiquetteer is always pleased to receive your questions about manners at queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.