An African-American president and a high-profile case involving allegations of racial profiling certainly make for a powerful mix. The arrest of Henry Louis Gates should have been a regrettable one-day news story. But Barack Obama’s intervention at last week’s press conference helped escalate it into a matter only a meeting between the parties at the White House over beer—with the president himself as conciliator—could be expected to resolve. Talk about over-dramatization!
Obama was right to meet the national press on Friday afternoon to bring the temperature down and correct the trajectory of his earlier remarks. After all, his comment rendering a judgment on the Cambridge police actions (“[they] acted stupidly”), prefaced by an admission that “he did not have all the facts” was sure to send shockwaves. Conservative commentators, led by Rush Limbaugh, quickly pounced and condemned Obama’s remarks, while the local police union adding that an apology would be appropriate in the circumstances. The so-called bully pulpit evidently has its advantages, but it also comes with constraints.
There was also much to do over the weekend on the news talk shows over whether Obama should have intervened or not when he was asked about Gates’s arrest last Wednesday. Some went so far as to psychoanalyze his intervention, suggesting it was an example of the inner conflict between Obama the black person and Obama the president. True, the usually cautious Obama strayed into minefield territory. I wonder, however, whether his remarks could not have just as easily been made by a white president. For example, I recall President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990’s saying he was sickened when he saw a video showing white policemen assaulting a black man in the course of an arrest. And would a Bill Clinton have avoided to answer a legitimate question about what seemed to be a false arrest with potential racial overtones ?
It is quite legitimate to argue that the evidence was inconclusive at the time of the presidential press conference and Obama should therefore have withheld judgment to avoid making comments about what can be a moral issue. However, it is a tough call for a president to make. Progress can only be achieved if leaders dare to speak out based on their values and principles. So while I agree that Obama could have used different words, the issue of racial profiling is still very much a fact of life in America. Leaders must speak up—even on moral issues.
The current media discussion and the eventual beer summit is sure to keep the story on the cable news shows for days ahead. Though it has pushed health-care reform to the background, this is in all likelihood a healthy development because Obama’s election may have been a significant and historic step but it was not the final step. America is fortunate to have a sitting president who has made every effort to transcend race in his quest for the presidency. His decision to readjust his message last Friday was a sign of maturity, grace and leadership. This should facilitate dialogue on divisive issues and build trust.
Gates, arguably a victim in this incident, is a product of another generation, one where profiling was very much a fact of life that few questioned back when the renowned professor was forming his views on life. That he overreacted is probably not an understatement, but it is also not surprising. The police officer involved, Sgt. Crowley, is also a victim. This is a man who teaches recruits how to avoid racial profiling in the course of a policeman’s duty. His partner, an African-American, claims that the arrest was not racially motivated, and there is more and more evidence that he is correct in his assessment. Still, a 57 year old man, with a cane and in his own home, should not have been arrested even if he had admittedly been acting belligerently during and after the intervention of the police. The fact the charges were dropped so quickly indicates as much. That the police overreacted to verbal abuse is becoming more obvious by the day .
Progress on racial issues necessitates time, patience, understanding and good judgment. America has changed but it is still in need of perfecting its union. Through the years, change has taken place through sound political judgment, courageous political action, and enlightened judicial decisions. Unfortunately, a beer at the White House will not solve the contentious issues related to race. But it is a powerful symbol that the first African-American president is sitting down with two individuals who confronted each other, one white and one black, to talk about an incident with racial implications in a presidential mansion built by African-American slaves. This is indeed a teachable moment.