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Race matters in America - Martha Randolph Carr

Often, when there is a question of race in America, people lose a certain amount of common sense.

On Thursday, July 16th, at 12:44 p.m., Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested by Cambridge police for attempting to unstick his own front door at his upscale Ware Street home near Harvard Square.

There was a mild pause in the news over the arrest of the prominent African American, but it wasn't until President Obama's subsequent remarks, during a national press conference, that the arresting officers "acted stupidly" that the media were all over it, questioning whether Obama had gone too far.

Not the arresting officers, who went as far as booking Gates for loud and tumultuous behavior, but Obama for his comments.

The national media responded by asserting that Obama had changed the focus from health care, which dominated the majority of the press conference, to Gates' arrest, and it was, somehow, very bad form on his part.

However, the media is responsible for spinning out the headlines and it was the media who chose to ignore the bulk of the information, which was on the less glitzy topic of providing medical care to everybody. The high ground on race issues is always a lot hotter to cover.

Just to add in a few facts, consider that Gates and the other man, who turned out to be the driver bringing him home from the airport, were already inside the house and presumably not ransacking Gates' own things. This came from neighbors who were on the scene and were able to identify Gates as the homeowner.

Also, Gates identified himself to the police even providing the officers with two forms of picture identification. In most instances, there would have been some apologies for disturbing the resident and the police would have driven off to look for some actual crimes.

However, Gates was not only still taken into custody, he was also handcuffed. Again, the media focus wasn't on the obvious racial profiling, but on Gates' angry comments to police that they didn't know who he was, which seems pertinent, and that he was being arrested for being black in America.

That seems credible under the circumstances as well.

What's actually more amazing is that given the same conditions, most Americans would have added in a lot more words still not allowed on prime time television.

The call alerting the police was placed by Lucia Whalen, another of Gates' neighbors, who has stated that she was concerned seeing two men trying to force their way into the front door. Whalen has vehemently denied that race was even mentioned in the initial call for help.

However, the subsequent police dispatch mentioned that the suspected thieves were "two black adult males." So, either the police drew their own conclusions, or Whalen gave out a few more details.

But, that would be a good thing. If someone sees what they believe to be a crime in progress, then any visible descriptive features need to be given to the 911 dispatcher, including race. It says far more that Whalen is working so hard to distance herself from noticing her neighbor was black. Perhaps, if she was more comfortable with the idea that we are of different races, she'd have realized she was looking at someone who has lived on her street for awhile.

Gates is now considering suing the Cambridge police for the arrest, which will guarantee more talking heads on TV trying to figure out if it's OK that we can tell the difference between white and black.

Yes, it's more than OK. It's the assumptions we gather because of that, that can make us blind to some basic facts.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at Martha@caglecartoons.com.