Obama Tries to Quell Criticism of Gates Arrest

25 07 2009

President Barack Obama attempted to quell criticism of his remarks concerning the arrest of Harvard law professor Henry “Skip” Louis Gates by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police force during a cameo appearance at a White House press briefing on Friday. The president expressed regret that “my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy.” He also said he phoned Sgt. Crowley to apologize for conveying the false impression that he intended to malign him and his department.

At his press conference on Wednesday he said “that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they [sic] were in their own home.”

Seeing how his words of condemnation inadvertently led to much of the inane fodder in the blogosphere, talk radio, and cable television chatter and consequently distracting the public from his broader legislative agenda, he urged us to step “back for a moment,”  recognize that “these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts,”  but “be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.”

He also said he invited Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley to the White House for a beer as a gesture of good will and hopes of reconciling differences and putting this controversy to rest.

His comments were meant to be conciliatory and to prevent the controversy over his initial set of remarks from competing with his message of the urgency of passing a health care reform bill through a slow moving Congress. On August 7th, the Congress breaks for a month long recess, and the White House is determined to keep the pressure on lawmakers to continue to work on the bill even during the break if need be. I could see how some of his advisers may think wading into racial politics at this juncture would not be helpful.

By the same token, the president attempt to rein back his statements were not helpful in enriching our already impoverished discussion of racial justice. Whether he knew it or not, the president’s remarks on Friday gave us the impression that the gray haired professor who walks with a cane is just a fault for his own arrest in his own home even if he produced an ID showing as the imposing and armed police officer is for cuffing him, since its all one big misunderstanding.

To imply there is some kind of moral equivalency here given the power relationship is wrong. Even if Professor Gates was belligerent is not clear that he was wanted to fight, threaten, initiate violent behavior, or was a danger to public safety or became annoyance, any one of which would have justified the arrest for disorderly conduct under Massachusetts law. In this instance, a mere heated exchange eventuated in a mug shot.

The president could have at least reaffirmed his statement on Wednesday that racial profiling remains a national problem and that something should be done about it.  For starters, we could pass the End Racial Profiling Act, which would ban the practice of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal funding to state and local police departments if they adopt policies to prohibit the practice. ERPA has yet to be introduced this Congress, but criminal justice reform advocates have been clamoring for its passage for years.

Instead, we are told that tempers flared unnecessarily on both sides and that we should all calm down and have a brewski. I doubt that the next person of color who gets pulled over in the Boston area will derive much solace from that recommendation.

President Obama called this a “teachable moment” for all us but that presumes that someone has to do the teaching or at least lead the discussion. Many people, perhaps unjustifiably, expected our first black president to do just that, but it seems he really does not appetite for it and quite frankly is rather busy with salvaging two failed wars he inherited from his predecessor in addition to trying to capture terrorists, reforming our financial regulatory system, stimulate job creation, overhauling our education system and, of course, passing a health care reform bill.

Political observers have wondered whether or not President Obama’s ascendancy not only means that we live in a post-racist America, but also if we need an activist class of black leaders anymore. Some have provocatively asked if Obama signifies the “End of Black Politics?” But the President Obama needs a counterweight on these issues, someone to contrast his own views with on racial justice issues and who can forcefully communicate the concerns of black America to everyone else. The president still has to worry about managing the perception that he’s inclined to favor some groups over others.

Of course, scores of black intellectuals and civic leaders have commented on the Gates affair, but no one with the kind of stature necessary to become President Obama’s gadfly on racial issues writ large in the same way President Lydon B. Johnson had to contend with Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the 60’s.

Even the most gifted and talented among us need to be pushed in the right direction to realize their potential.

Check out the president’s remarks on Friday here:

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