To his credit, the WaPo’s Eugene Robinson admits that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. falls into the category of a “Big Cheese.” But he argues that a Big White Cheese would be treated differently than a Big Black Cheese:

…Gates’s fit of pique somehow became cause for arrest. I can’t prove that if the Big Cheese in question had been a famous, brilliant Harvard professor who happened to be white — say, presidential adviser Larry Summers, who’s on leave from the university — the outcome would have been different. I’d put money on it, though. Anybody wanna bet?

I think if Larry Summers had behaved in the same way — yelling loudly at a cop who was investigating reports of a burglary at his home during an identical late-night struggle to open a jammed lock — once the press got hold of it, people would be even less inclined to give him a break. And instead of being invited over for beers with the cop at the White House, Summers would find himself laughed out of his job unless he apologized very fast and explained his conduct. That’s because Americans dislike the sort of arrogance that sneers “Have you any idea whom you’re dealing with?” at the little guy. Powerful people who think they have a right to cut in lines. Big Cheeses who think they have a right to be rude and condescending to waiters in restaurants. Presidential aspirants who fall down and then accuse the Secret Service of pushing them.
The whole Gates thing reminds me of an incident I heard about years ago involving John Lennon at a Los Angeles restaurant [I apologize if I have gotten any of the details wrong, as this is from my somewhat addled 1970s memory]. This was during one of his existential crises, and Lennon had recently shaved his head and was wearing a Kotex over it, which he had tied under his chin. He was loud, obnoxious, demanding, and treated the waitress abominably. When this failed to insire the busy waitress into behaving sufficiently like a servile groupie, Lennnon thought it was time to remind her of just Who He Was.
“Have you any idea who you’re dealing with?” Lennon sneered.
“Yeah, some asshole with a Kotex tied on his head!” was the reply.
I guess you could call it a well-deserved smackdown. Americans like seeing an asshole get his due. The problem is, some assholes never get their due. Gates strikes me as a supreme asshole who knew exactly what he was doing by provoking that officer, and then later set out to ruin his career out of petty vindictiveness.
Would Larry Summers have done the same thing? I don’t know, but if he had, I suspect the outcome would have been different. At the very least, we would have all been allowed to ridicule Larry Summers’ antics without being called racist for it. And he would have been forced to put up with the laughter at his expense, or maybe (if he had a sense of humor) even laugh along with it. Will Gates do that? I don’t know, but he doesn’t strike me as having much of a sense of humor.
Speaking of laughing at Big Cheeses, yesterday I watched a hilarious video about Timothy Geithner’s inability to sell his house. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show not only made fun of his asking price, but excoriated his hideous choice of bathroom colors.

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(Via Glenn Reynolds, who quotes an economist likening Geithner to “a personal trainer who is morbidly obese.”)
But in addition to his economic problem, Geithner faces a serious color problem. Even if the real estate market rights itself and the Geithner home finally sells, the man will never live down his hideously tacky bathroom color scheme. Whether he likes it or not, people will always be able to Google “Geithner’s bathroom” and laugh. Here it is, proudly labeled “Geithner’s Throne”:
And it is a throne, in a funny sort of way. Americans like to make fun of thrones, especially the thrones of the Big Cheeses.
But suppose Henry Louis Gates Jr. had moved to Washington along with Geithner and Summers, and suppose his house sat on the market, overpriced, not selling, and with a tacky 1990s retro blue tile job.
Would Comedy Central make a film ridiculing his financial predicament along with the color of his bathroom?
I don’t think so.
America is not so color blind. We’re still so hung up on judging people by the color of their skins that it interferes with our ability to judge the color of their bathrooms.