I worked my way through college as a security guard for a company that specialized in security for the campus area of a major flagship university. The area was simply stuffed with the children of the wealthy and connected, most of whom belonged to sororities and fraternities. Most of the security and police work revolved around controlling the excesses of the frats. I got to see how the police had to deal with people quick to claim immunity because of their membership or parentage. I saw how irritated the police got every time they had to talk to one of those little snots.
So, when I read the police report on the Gates incident I understood immediately that Gates’s mistake wasn’t “being a black man in America,” it was this:
I then overheard Gates asking the person on the other end of his telephone call to “get the chief” and “what’s the chief’s name?” … Gates then turned to me and told me that I had no idea who I was “messing” with and I had not heard the last of it.
I can only imagine how many hundreds of times the Cambridge police have heard some arrogant little snot of a Harvard frat boy utter variants on that same claim to privilege. The Cambridge police also well know that frats only claim privilege when they know they’re in the wrong and they need to weasel out the consequences. When Gates played the privilege card like a frat snot, Officer Crowley immediately suspected that Gates was up to something and was trying to intimidate the officer into backing off and not investigating further.
He was also most likely seriously pissed off. Back in college, I marveled at how police officers restrained themselves when dealing with the arrogant abuses of frats. I saw first hand how much cops hate frats. They hate being sneered at and verbally abused by drunken 18-year olds whose only accomplishment in life was being squeezed out the right birth canal. They hate having to deal with people who cause trouble just because they can and they’re bored. They hate the fact that all too often frats do manage to escape the full consequences of their actions while children of their own class and background usually do not. When Gates claimed the same unearned exemption from standard practice, Crowley would have been angered no matter how professionally he acted.
Gates is lucky. If he had been a young, white frat, playing the privilege card most likely would have earned him a hood bounce and a slow release owing to mysteriously slow paperwork processing . Instead, he had the President of the United States leap to his defense, he’s going earn a great deal of money and he gets to play the martyr for his key demographic.
If this was a “teachable moment,” what did we learn? Gates has learned what frats have long known. Privilege is sweet for those who have it.