Last October I flew to Sarasota, Fla., and arranged to stay at the home of a friend who was traveling at the time. She mailed me keys and an address.
I landed late and took a cab. When we pulled up in front of the house, which I'd never seen before, it was very dark, so I asked the cabbie to wait while I let myself in.
The keys didn't work in the front door. Or the back door. With rising anxiety -- it was 11 p.m., after all -- I called my friend, but she wasn't answering her cell phone. We tried the keys in both doors again; no luck.
Just before heading back to the airport, where I figured I could find a hotel, I tried my friend again. This time she picked up.
I explained my problem, describing the front door -- and she started laughing. "You're in the wrong place. You'd better get out of there before someone calls the cops." We were on the wrong street.
While the driver was consulting his GPS, sure enough, a cop appeared behind us. We stopped; the cop came over; the cabbie explained; he and the cop had a chuckle; the cop returned to his car; we drove on to the right place, and the keys fit. All was well.
I thought of this story when I read about the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates after entering his own house.
The worst thing that happened to me was that I had to feel stupid and frustrated for 15 minutes. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to talk my way out of any problem.
That's because my story involves four white people -- the cabbie, my friend, the cop, and me. I think now it's fair to say that there isn't a black man in America who could tell a story like mine.
Gates is probably the most famous black professor in the world, and was in his own home in one of the most liberal cities in the entire country. Of course he was furious. Still the white officer arrested him -- even after he knew it was Gates' home.
My hope is that lots of white folks will finally get what our African-American brothers and sisters have been trying to get through our thick skulls for about half a century now. It's different being black. No matter whether we think we are racists. And anyway, no person of color believes any white person who says, "I'm not a racist."
Every day, we white people benefit from being white, from white ancestry, and from acting as if we deserve the benefits of being white.
When we hunt for housing, real estate agents regard us more favorably. We don't get followed by store security. We get better deals from car salesmen, more generous treatment from juries, and -- despite myths of rampant affirmative action -- our kids rarely compete with equally qualified African-American kids because so many urban schools, where most black kids are educated, are flat-out disasters.
Racism thrives in many places -- in hospital emergency rooms, in bank loan departments, in country clubs and churches and synagogues and universities. And in police departments.
White cops treat black men as criminals all the time -- all the time. And the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) everywhere defends every white officer who gets caught out -- even on video.
In Cambridge, the city and police department dropped the charges, calling the incident "regrettable and unfortunate" -- not the PBA, which gave its "full and unqualified support" to the officer's actions.
The incident even provoked President Obama, who's stayed pretty far away from race issues since being elected, into saying that the police acted "stupidly." He's since backtracked and invited both Gates and the officer who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, to the White House for a beer. It's a great start on what needs to happen.
But it's only a start. We need to transform police training top to bottom on the subject of race. The fact that the Cambridge cop taught the class about racial profiling suggests there's a good bit more work to do on the subject. Then we can start on banks, credit card companies, churches, synagogues and universities.
Gates has always had flair -- for figuring out new ideas and new trends, and for generating publicity. I don't wish upon him the fear he must have felt in his doorway, treated like a criminal in his own home. But he may have given white Americans one of the best teaching moments about race that we've ever had. If only we pay attention to it.
Warren Goldstein, a former fellow at the University of Minnesota Humanities Institute, teaches American history and chairs the history department at the University of Hartford. His most recent book, authored with Christopher Gabrieli, is "Time to Learn: How a New School Schedule is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents, and Safer Neighborhoods."