The arrest of Henry Louis Gates provides an opportunity to evaluate how Americans respond to injustice and racism.

To excuse injustice is to urge others to commit it by suggesting that there are acceptable reasons for the behavior. To forgive it acknowledges that the behavior is wrong, even if understandable. The effects of our decision to either excuse or forgive are probably greater than we can imagine.

Few will doubt that Dr. Gates and millions of African Americans have felt the sting of injustice. Perhaps he has seen it so many times that he has begun to see it where it does not exist, as in this case.

Maybe we can understand that. I am white. I paid my way through college by working at a chicken hatchery 40 hours a week until midnight every night.

One night I was walking home after work wearing dirty, disheveled clothes. As I approached a crossing a car pulled up to the stop sign under the street light. On the passenger side was a well-dressed elderly lady and our eyes met. Almost automatically, I raised my hand to wave.

Normally, for most of my life, such a lady would smile and nod or otherwise acknowledge my greeting with some friendly gesture. On this night, she took note of my appearance and the hour (I assume) and reached over and locked the door.

That hurt. I can smile about it now, but I try to imagine what it would be like to experience this and worse every day by large numbers of people who look upon race as this lady looked upon dirty clothes.

I try to look through the eyes of someone who has, time after time, been treated with disrespect in its many forms because of the color of his skin.

I find it easy to forgive such a one for mistaking an officer doing his duty for another racial attack and for responding to it with anger that would be justified if it were another instance of hatred.

Excusing injustice gives birth to further injustices. Forgiveness suggests the need to do better on the part of the one forgiven.

If the reports are accurate that Dr. Gates said to the police officer, “You don’t know who you’re messing with!” then it appears that Dr. Gates may have been suggesting an even greater, systemic, perversion of justice that none of us should tolerate.

If he meant by those words that the law, and officials who enforce the law, should look differently upon those who are famous or those who have advanced degrees or teach in Ivy League institutions — or have friends in high places — than it looks upon those who do not, then we must protest.

To lash out in such a way and snatch the blindfold from the eyes of Lady Justice and say, “No! You must not be blind! Look at me. Make exceptions for that category of person that includes me!” is a violation of the sacred principle of fairness.

It suggests that law enforcement ought to have a separate set of procedures for the poor and defenseless who are unprotected by status, money, or connections.

To excuse this assertion is to certify that it is acceptable to us. To forgive it, especially if the author of the statement asks us to do so, is to join hands and promise that we will, together, try to do better.

Tim Nichols, director

Student Support Services

Potomac State College of WVU

Keyser, W.Va.

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