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.
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.