Obama, race and the Gates affair

President Obama raised eyebrows across the nation by suggesting that the Cambridge Police Dempartment acted “stupidly” in arresting a Harvard professor after his identity and home ownership had clearly been established.

In a recent ABC interview, Obama softened that comment a bit by calling Sgt. James Crowley, an “outstanding police officer,” and suggesting that the outcome could have been avoided if “cooler heads” had prevailed on both sides. 

Yesterday, while attending a Sojourners event in Dallas, I briefly discussed the Gates affair with Rev. Gerald Britt, a prolific blogger and Vice President of Public Policy & Community Program Development Central Dallas Ministries.    “Black people and white people respond to law enforcement differently,” Britt told me, “because we don’t draw from the same experience.”

Britt is right.  Intellecutally, I generally come down on the “black” side of racially divisive issues, but my white experience bars me from feeling the emotion so eloquently revealed in the eyes of my black and Lationo friends. 

Reaction to President Obama’s initial comment has been mixed.  At the New York Times, Brent Staples argues that Obama’s willingness to take sides in the controversial Gates episode debunks the widespread view that he sidesteps racially divisive issues. 

According to Staples, Obama has been falsely identified with a “post-racial” perspective that exploits exceptionally successful African Americans.

“Don’t talk to us about discrimination,” the argument typically goes. “You made it. If the others got off their behinds and tried, they would, too.” In this rhetoric of race, there is no such thing as social disadvantage, only hard-working, morally upright people who succeed, and lazy, morally defective people who do not.

Staples reminds us that, in an interview with Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, Obama expressed his frustration with media coverage of his recent address to the NAACP. 

He suggested that the news media had overemphasized his remarks about “personal responsibility” — a venerable theme in the African-American church — while disregarding “the whole other half of the speech,” which included a classic exercise in civil-rights oratory.

The president described disproportionate rates of unemployment, imprisonment and lack of health insurance in minority communities as barriers of the moment. He contrasted them with the clubs and police dogs that black marchers faced in the 1960s and said that solving present-day problems would require comparable determination.

And “make no mistake,” he continued, “the pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and a different gender.”

This was no exceptionalist rant. Speaking to Mr. Robinson, the president used the first-person plural revealingly when he said: “I do think it is important for the African-American community, in its diversity, to stay true to one core aspect of the African-American experience, which is we know what it’s like to be on the outside.”

Three thousand miles to the west, Peter Wallsten, Peter Nicholas and Richard Simon with the Los Angeles Times demonstrate the accuracy of Staples’ analysis.  The LAT folks see Obama’s “softer” tone in the ABC interview as a return to the rhetoric of a post-racial America evident in his campaign and in the early stages of his presidency.

As a candidate, Obama defused the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. controversy — the firestorm over anti-American remarks by his former pastor — by delivering a speech on race that was generally viewed as sensitive to all sides, including whites fed up with policies such as racial preferences.

During the campaign, he said affirmative action should be applied on the basis of class and need, not race.

Obama also initially was cautious during his candidacy when the “Jena Six” case took the national spotlight.

The president chooses his words carefully when he talks about race.  But the LAT’s portrait of a post-racial Obama reflects the mainstream media’s intense desire to avoid a long-deferred conversation about race in America.  I have long argued that Obama’s frank comments about the abiding legacy of racism have been intentionally overlooked by the media.

True, candidate Obama didn’t speak out on the Jena 6 story until he had digested the facts, but in a largely unreported address to the student body of Howard University he showed a balanced and nuanced command of the issues.

There are some who will make Jena about the fight itself. And it’s true that we have to do more as parents to instill our children with the idea that violence is always wrong: It’s wrong when it happens on the streets of Chicago; it’s wrong when it happens in a schoolyard in Louisiana. Violence is not the answer. And all of us know that more violence is perpetrated between blacks than between blacks and whites. Our community has suffered more than anything from the slow, chronic tolerance of violence. Nonviolence was the soul of the civil rights movement. We have to do a better job of teaching our children that virtue.

But we also know that to truly understand Jena you have to look at what happened both before and after that fight. You have to listen to the hateful slurs that flew through the hallways of that school. You have to know the full measure of the damage done by that arson; you have to look at those nooses hanging on that schoolyard tree, and you have to understand how badly our system of justice failed those six boys in the days after that fight. The outrageous charges, the unreasonable and excessive sentences, the public defender who did not call a single witness.

Many of the details Obama alludes to were not widely reported in the mainstream media and could only have come from the Friends of Justice Jena narrative and my report on Mychal Bell’s trial.

But whether you think Obama got Jena right or not, there can be no doubt that he spoke out forcefully on the issue in a public setting.  His words at Howard University didn’t make it to prime time because they weren’t inkeeping with the post-racial Obama.  The president has been created in the image of white liberals eager to leave the civil rights era behind. 

The president’s “softer” take on the Gates affair is a political response to the harsh criticism he has received from law enforcement; his comments at the conclusion of the Monday press conference reveal his true feelings.

Henry Louis Gates is unusually immersed in the sordid details of American racial injustice.  His emotional reaction to Crowley can’t be understood apart from the intense intellectual world he inhabits.  This was an archetypal encounter between a white authority figure and a black American male.  Gates wouldn’t let Sgt. Crowley dominate the social space.

I don’t expect the pampered liberal white sophisticates on the LAT editorial page to understand that.

12 thoughts on “Obama, race and the Gates affair

  1. ” . . . pampered liberal white sophisticates . . .” My God, Alan, why don’t you say what you really mean?

  2. I’m a “pampered liberal white sophisticate” and am in agreement with most of what you’ve written here. Let’s try not to make a polarizing situation even more polar. I think Obama’s initial comments about the incident were shockingly impulsive and out of character for his typical deliberative style. My guess is that within minutes of his “stupidly” statement, he regretted making the comment. Now, he has some serious mending of fences to do and he needs to treat this Professor Gates just like he dealt with Reverend Wright.


  3. “Stupidly” was certainly the appropriate word for the President to use. I have just finished a lengthy study of the origins, development, and continuation of white attitudes towards African-Americans in the U.S. and “stupid” perfectly describes them. Even when the attitudes are so obviously not in our own (I’m white) self-interest, we persist in them and the policies based on them.

  4. My view is that between the officer and the professor, the only one who got racial was Dr. Gates, and indeed that subject has been the theme of his career. As for President Obama, he should have stopped after “I don’t have all the facts” and “Skip Gates is a friend of mine.” The president’s ensuing generalizations about the American black experience with police were in fact true, but his conclusion in the specific case was unfortunate, half-baked, and should not have been offered.

    At a dinner last night of the board of the Louisiana state criminal bar, the head public defender of a major city asked me (I’m white, he’s black), whether I had ever had a police officer come to my house and ask if everything was okay? To that I had to say, “Yes.” He then asked, “Have you ever been asked, at your own house, whether you belonged there?” To that I had to say, “No.” He had. But I have had white clients stopped in black neighborhoods by police who accused them of having only one reason for being there, namely, to buy drugs. This is wrong.

    Sgt. Crowley didn’t have to arrest, but it was entirely predictable under the circumstances that an officer of any race would do so. It appears to me that Prof. Gates had it entirely within his own power not to go to jail, but as a practical matter, opted to go. If you try to push an officer’s buttons (for instance by bringing his “mama” into the argument), you may just succeed. I said to my companions, “My experience is that a police officer tends to exercise his discretion on the side of being an a**hole.” One of our past presidents who used to be a cop said, “I always did.”

  5. Thanks, everybody for the thoughtful comments. Interesting observation, King, that Gates was the guy who “got racial.” I’m sure that’s true. If the officer had made the slightest hint of a racial comment we’d certainly know about it. On the other hand, there is an unspoken and implicit racial narrative to this entire story. Check out Stanley Fish’s comments: http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/henry-louis-gates-deja-vu-all-over-again/
    Fish hardly represents the word on the street–he’s an academic. But, like Obama, he knows Skip Gates so he is able to see the episode through the professor’s eyes. Some white people are able to identify with Gates’ but not very many.

  6. I believe that I can identify with Gates’ reaction to this scenario. His entire academic career has been built upon the study of racism and the white man’s oppression of the black man. In gathering that knowledge, it has obviously affected how he perceives the world around him and definitely ‘colored’ his response to Sgt. Crowley’s requests during their confrontation. Of course, Sgt. Crowley knew nothing about Gates or his field of study. All he knew what that he was the lone officer responding to a possible burglary in progress. Gates, who is supposed to be a man of intellect, should have been bright enough to know he was exacerbating a situation. He not only challenged the authority of a police officer who was investigating a possible crime, but he also went far beyond that by attacking the officer’s personal integrity. In short, he baited the cop.

    I’ve known many policer officers and even the most temperate of them wouldn’t have tolerated Gates’ behavior. Gates knew Crowley was a police officer and he knew why Crowley was there within a few seconds, yet he decided to get in Crowley’s face and then refused to calm down after two very clear warnings from the officer. The bottom line here is clear to me. Professor Gates was not only hyper-sensitized to the racial overtones of the situation, but he also possessed an enormous sense of entitlement and arrogance, hence his remark to Crowley, “Do you know who you’re messin’ with?” This was a man who wanted instantaneous deference from a cop, even if it meant not allowing that cop to follow departmental procedures designed for his own safety.

    The current focus on the alleged vagueness of the “disorderly conduct” charge is bogus. This law is a valuable tool that police departments all over the country use to remove out of control people from potentially volatile situations. It gives officers the ability to take belligerent people into custody, even if they’ve committed no other crime, before the situation escalates into something more serious. This preserves an officer’s control over a situation in which he is uncertain about the environment. At a certain point, it’s also about having some respect for the officer, who has to anticipate the dangers of any given situation he is asked to investigate. It’s not about respecting the man or his color. It’s about respecting the law. Clearly, Gates has come to learn that police officers, especially white officers, deserve no respect. While disrespecting a police officer is not necessarily illegal, being emotionally unstable and refusing to comply with a police officer’s request is and always should be.

    People on both sides of this issue should be demanding the release of the Cambridge Police Department tapes. Those recordings will be the ‘smoking gun’ in this controversy and there is no doubt in my mind that, when they are played on national television, Gates will end up looking very bad.

  7. I do not believe a word that Gates has spoken about this incident. All of it has been self-serving. His first big lie has to do with his screaming. He said that he couldn’t have screamed at the officer because of a throat condition he contracted during his trip. The eight neighbors standing outside his home that day would beg to differ with that claim. Gates’ claims about the nature of the exchange with Sgt. Crowley also serve to re-affirm and promote the cause to which he has devoted his entire academic career. Gates lies about the situation, nothing happens to him. The officer lies about it and he gets fired and pilloried by the media. Who’s going to be the most likely to lie in this scenario? Again, let’s listen to the tapes.

  8. John: Your insistence that Gates is lying raises questions about your objectivity. What is the basis for your sketpicism? An a priori conviction that all claims of racial injustice are bogus?

  9. I’ve asked myself that question as I formed my opinions about the situation, and I’ve been troubled by my own conclusions. At first, the only side of the story we got here was from Gates, who not only claimed that he never screamed at the officer, but that he was totally cooperative. Then Sgt. Crowley began to speak out in his own defense, and other facts came to light about him as well. When I read that Professor Gates specialized in the study of racism in this country, it became fairly clear to me that he felt the need to act out his feelings on that subject and make this police officer pay a price for daring to enter his home. Now, if the tapes are released and they show that Gates was the victim of an abusive, possibly racist cop, then I’ll be the first to agree that Sgt. Crowley was out of line and that he should apologize to Gates, the city and the country. But I just don’t think that’s the case at all. Gates was the one who was guilty of ‘racial profiling’ in this situation, not the officer, and in doing so he turned into the very thing that he has loathed all his life. It’s almost Shakespearean. But, now, his ego is too inflated for him to admit the truth, so we’re hearing threats of lawsuits and documentary films. The lesson to be learned here is that anger, no matter what it is directed at, is always counterproductive.

  10. Why do people jump all over President Obama when he says something from his heart with no bad intent? Do you think these same people ever questioned stupid statements of our previous president? Let’s move forward and worry about the big stuff. When will President Obama step in for Troy Davis?

  11. I think, as President of the United States, he made a mistake by commenting on this incident prior to knowing any of the facts. Clearly, any time a President speaks on an issue, it has a great deal of impact. Just ask Sgt. Crowley. His comment about the police was, at best, ill-advised.

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