Wes Pruden writes of Gategate:
But what seems to be about race isn't always about color. Mr. Gates accused the cops of asking impertinent questions simply because he's black (or "African-American," in the current fashion). President Obama agreed. In the endless retelling of the tale, the white neighbor who called the cops told the police dispatcher that "two black guys" were trying to break into the Gates abode. A review of the police 911 tape revealed Monday that the caller actually told the dispatcher that "two gentlemen" were trying to get into the door; she subsequently referred to one of them as a "gentleman" and to both of them as "individuals." Nothing about color.
In my experience -- indeed, in my own practice -- "gentleman" is the word that whites eager not to appear racist usually apply to a black man, particularly when his race is the salient factor. Certainly in this case: a woman calling in a B&E would not normally be simultaneously impressed with the alleged perp's manners and bearing. But for a black perp, the word "gentleman" gets deployed as a reflexive self-inoculation against racism.