This was written in response to an essay by Melissa Harris-Lacewell in The Nation.
I largely agree with Harris-Lacewell on the Gates affair. I find Obama's involvement more interesting. Some thoughts:
1. My impression of Gates is that he is a prima donna at an institution specializing in prima donnas. There are a great many African-American scholars doing better, more insightful work elsewhere. Gates is a great promoter and popularizer (needed in their own right, but not scholarship).
2. If Gates were the edgy radical that some want to condemn him as, he would not be at Harvard, which is notoriously hostile to independent thinking. It is an essentially conservative, money-driven institution.
This point is best illustrated by the case of Cornel West, driven out of Harvard by the intolerant bigotries of then-president Lawrence Summers who is now -- surprise! -- a member of the Obama administration. So much for Obama's concern about bigotry. (Summers has repeatedly express revolting positions regarding women, blacks, Arabs and all who criticize Israel.)
3. Let's be blunt. Racism is rampant in the US. Arab-Americans can best attest to this today. But Gates and Obama both enjoy singular privilege. By no stretch of the imagination do they instantiate anyone's common experience. To me, Gates has appeared eager to appear a victim (which he may indeed be, but his reaction is a distinct phenomenon in its own right).
5. More interesting, Obama's reaction --(A) Were this a white person victimized by standard police excesses (as were many in NYC by Mayor Bloomberg's totalitarianism during the '04 RNC), Obama wouldn't dream of criticizing the police. --(B) Were this a black man in Harlem shot by cops for Living While Black, Obama would be silent. And worst --(C) Obama has actively rejected justice in the case of Bush et al., greatest war criminals in 30 years.