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Good for President Obama. In the aftermath of his foolish, off the cuff remarks about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the President took some advice from police sergeant James Crowley and invited the duo to the White House for beers and a chat.

Gates is still clinging to a false reading of his arrest: racial profiling. I would suggest that James Crowley probably knows a great deal more about racial profiling than the professor. So instead of lecturing him (and us), perhaps Gates should spend a day in a police car before heading to the White House. It might give him a clearer picture of how policemen face a constant struggle to assert their authority in order to maintain public order.

Gates is a smart guy. A little experience with the reality of law enforcement will make him realize that in all likelihood he was not arrested because he was black. He was arrested because he challenged Sergeant Crowley’s authority, or at least Crowley perceived him to do so.

We can debate the finer points of the Gates/Crowley encounter, but on the larger point surely we can agree. Policemen need to project authority in order to minimize their use of force. As anybody who has tried to keep order in a schoolyard or classroom knows, a person in a position of authority cannot consistently tolerate verbal abuse and at the same time retain authority. Crowley arrested Gates in order to assert his authority, in order to maintain the image of the policeman as an officer of the law who has the power to control all situations. Obviously, we want all sorts of legal constraints on how policemen reinforce their authority and exercise control. But at the same time, we should want their authority and power to control situations to be real.

This tempest in the media teapot has brought to the surface a strange ignorance about the reality of policing and policemen among the chattering class. Maybe I’ve gone to the wrong sorts of bars on the wrong sides of town, but I’ve had (and witnessed) “encounters” with policemen, testy little confrontations when the male ego fences with the officer’s determined efforts to show that he was in charge. In each case, I was fully aware that if I started shouting or cursing, I was going to jail.

This is not secret information, folks. Are the journalists today so removed from the social reality of ordinary life that they can’t see the obvious?

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