Stories of the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on charges of disorderly conduct after a rancorous altercation with Cambridge MA police responding to a report of a break-in have been understandably disseminated widely.  This may have been a case of racism, but it is certainly one which illustrates the fact that innocence is not as effective a defence as is influence.  

Prof. Gates’ contention that he was being suspected of wrongdoing and singled out for his race is eclipsed by another, perhaps more exigent and to many, more poignant aspect of this case:  Prof. Gates expected and eventually received preferential treatment with charges dropped, not by virtue of his innocence but simply because he was influential.

Professor Gates is quoted (See the Henry Louis Gates police arrest report) as saying repeatedly to the officer “You don’t know who you’re dealing with” — not a defence or explanation based on his innocence, but a warning of reprisal and repercussion, a plea  that he should be treated with respect because of his exalted status and ability to bring legal pressure and media attention to bear.

This incident will certainly have some residual effect on law enforcement policy, but that effect will be of no significant value to minorities or indeed to most of us.  An innocent person of any color but without connections and influence is no safer as  a result of this precedent than before.  There is no doubt, however, that police in Cambridge and elsewhere are likely to detain individuals on charges of disorderly conduct (verbal abuse) only if the suspects are lacking resources and connections which might later be cause for embarrassment.