This blog has an awesomely excellent post analyzing the Gates arrest and reactions to it.
Here are just a few choice excerpts:
So, I can’t stop thinking about Henry Louis Gates, Jr., being arrested at his own home last week. Very short version: He got home from a trip to China, found his front door jammed, let himself in the back, and then worked with his driver (also a black man) to open the front door. A white neighbor witnessed their efforts to unjam the door and called the police to report a suspected break-in. Cops showed up when Gates was already inside the house, and well, details are hazy — not surprisingly, the police report differs substantially from Gates’s statement — but basically, Gates produced i.d. proving it was his house, he and the cop argued, argument moved outside, and Gates got arrested on his front porch for disorderly conduct. (The charges were dropped today).
The problem (well, one of them) is, too many white people imagine the scenario going pretty much as I described in answer 3. Cop says, “Neighbor thought you were breaking in,” you say, “Oh, ha, it’s my own house, here’s my i.d.!” and the cop apologizes and goes away. Because A) that actually is how it would be likely to happen for us, and B) the words “a neighbor thought you were breaking in” would not, in themselves, be loaded. Your first thought might be, “That’s weird,” or “Maybe she didn’t recognize me because I was wearing a hat,” or “Wow, what a fucking busybody!” But your first thought would not be, “Oh, of course she saw a white person forcing the door and assumed it was a crime in progress. Jesus Christ. Welcome home.” That would, in fact, be a completely unreasonable response for a white person, on account of how NOBODY EVER ASSUMES WHITE PEOPLE ARE CRIMINALS JUST BECAUSE WE’RE WHITE.
That’s the thing that’s different about this story. Gates knew it was utter bullshit, knew his rights, and knew the right people to get himself out of there and make a huge stink about it. But this sort of crap and much worse happens again and again and again to black men who also know it’s bullshit but don’t have the power to do anything about it. And on the relatively rare occasion when it gets media attention, my fellow white people cling to the just world theory and scramble to explain what the guy did wrong, how he brought it on himself, how different choices would have led to a different outcome, how it’s not a matter of institutionalized racism but individual behavior.