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In this photo taken by a neighbour on July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., centre, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.

B. Carter

A white policeman who trains fellow officers in the pitfalls of racial profiling arrests a prominent African American scholar.

It's a story filled with irony, and now it's national news after Barack Obama, the first black U.S. President, waded boldly into the murky waters of racial stereotyping to defend his friend.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent black scholar at Harvard University, was briefly detained and charged with disorderly conduct last week after being mistaken by a neighbour for a burglar as he tried to pry open the jammed front door of his home in Cambridge, Mass.

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The charges were later dropped. And it might have ended there.

But during a prime-time news conference Wednesday, Mr. Obama accused the police of acting "stupidly" and pointed out that blacks and Latinos have a long history of being disproportionately stopped by law enforcement.

"This still haunts," lamented Mr. Obama, who said Prof. Gates is a friend. "Even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently, and often-time for no cause, casts suspicion, even when there is good cause."

Those comments have suddenly made the saga of the black professor and the white arresting officer a much bigger deal, putting the President at the centre of a debate over race.

A recent study by American Civil Liberties Union found that minorities continue to be racially or ethnically profiled while they "work, drive, shop, pray, travel, and stand on the street." And U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder said ending profiling by law enforcement is a top priority after years of neglect under the Bush administration.

But some conservative bloggers argued Mr. Obama went too far by questioning the work of local police. Mr. Obama's defenders, however, insist he had every right to weigh in, both as president and as a long-time critic of racial profiling.

Thursday, Mr. Obama responded to the reaction his words have generated. "I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement," he said in an interview with ABC News, "because I think it was a pretty straightforward comment that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who's in his own home."

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The Cambridge police sergeant, James Crowley, 42, complained Thursday the President is "way off base" by getting involved in a local case "without knowing all the facts." Sgt. Crowley, speaking to Boston radio station WBZ-AM, insisted he did nothing wrong in arresting Prof. Gates and has rejected Prof. Gates' request for an apology.

"I know what I did was right," insisted Sgt. Crowley, who teaches a course in race profiling at a police academy in Lowell, Mass., trying to help fellow officers avoid singling out people because of their ethnic background.

Academy director Thomas Fleming called Sgt. Crowley a "good role model," who he said was hand-picked for the teaching post by a black former state police commissioner.

Other local officials, however, are quickly lining up behind Prof. Gates, who has insisted he was mistreated solely because he's black.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who is also black, called the professor to express his regret, and Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons said his arrest was "regrettable and unfortunate."

Prof. Gates has made his arrest a cause célèbre. He says he wants to make a documentary about racial profiling, hoping that his treatment at the hands of the police will spark a national debate.

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"If this can happen to me in Harvard Square, this can happen to anybody in the United States, and I'm determined that it never [happens]to anybody again," he told CNN.

"What it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable all people of colour are, and all poor people to capricious forces like a rogue policeman. And this man clearly was a rogue policeman."

The arresting report, however, presents a much more nuanced account of what happened on July 16, when a neighbour called 911 to report "two black males with backpacks" trying to pry open the front door of a house.

Arriving at the scene, the uniformed Sgt. Crowley said Prof. Gates was belligerent, unco-operative and generally "loud and tumultuous."

When the officer asked him to step outside, the professor yelled loudly "Yeah, I'll speak to your mama outside," repeatedly accusing the officer of targeting him because he's black.

The professor continued hurling insults and yelling outside the house, as a small group of onlookers gathered on the sidewalk, according to the report. That's when Sgt. Crowley handcuffed the professor and arrested him.

"These actions on behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice, while appearing surprised and alarmed," the officer wrote.

Prof. Gates has disputed the allegation that he was "loud and tumultuous," pointing out that he has a respiratory infection picked up on a trip to China that prevents him from yelling. He said he arrived home to find his door jammed, and with a friend, forced it open, only to be confronted by a police officer demanding proof that he lived there.

Some black commentators argued that Prof. Gates may be right that he was a victim of racial profiling, but he's sending the wrong message to minorities - that it's a good idea to confront law enforcement.

"Back in the day, our parents gave us … advice to survive such encounters: 'Take low.' If a police officer is dogging you out, simply suck it up and accept it. Don't display anger; don't 'buck,' as the old folks used to say; don't look them in the eye and stand up for your rights," writer Mansfield Frazer wrote in "In other words, don't do anything that will cause you to wind up as a statistic on a police blotter."

With a report from Associated Press

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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