President Obama sides with Henry Louis Gates in divisive case
By JESSE WASHINGTON
AP National Writer
July 23, 2009
Making his first foray into a divisive racial issue, President Barack Obama sided with Henry Louis Gates Jr. after the black scholar's arrest by a white police officer, a striking departure from Obama's "post-racial" impartiality.
Saying that the white sergeant acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates, Obama inflamed an already volatile topic. Although he backed off that comment slightly Thursday, Obama stood by his assessment that the arrest of the Harvard professor "doesn't make sense."
After years of deftly defusing racial land mines, why did Obama speak out now? Because Gates is a friend and fellow Harvard man? Because racial profiling is an issue close to the president's heart?
Or could Obama, contemplating the idea of a white cop questioning a black man in his own home, have lost his legendary cool?
"I think he was responding emotionally. It was a visceral reaction," said Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor and former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
"It is a milestone, in a sense" said Berry, who was watching the news conference when Obama made the original statement. "It's his first foray into putting his tippy-toe into the water, to respond directly to something about race."
The journalist Ellis Cose, author of "The Rage of a Privileged Class," about anger among successful blacks, pointed out that Obama had sponsored legislation while an Illinois state senator to combat racial profiling.
"To the extent that he did drop his sort of nonracial face, so to speak, it was because this is an issue he feels personally passionate about and an issue that has clearly touched most black men in America of a certain age," Cose said. "I think he was personally outraged."
From the start, Gates' claims that he was racially profiled seemed like a case from the divided past, when truth was subjective, sympathies color-coded — and most presidents stayed neutral.
The Harvard history professor and prominent intellectual returned home from a trip to China last week and had to force open his jammed front door. A white woman who works nearby called police to report a possible break-in. Sgt. James Crowley arrived to find Gates inside the house and demanded to see some ID.
Gates says Crowley treated him rudely and refused to provide his badge number; Crowley says Gates yelled at him, accused him of racism and refused to calm down. Gates was charged with disorderly conduct and spent a few hours in custody. The charges were quickly dropped.
At the end of a news conference Wednesday night, Obama was asked about the arrest. After saying that he didn't know the details of what happened, the president plunged into uncharted waters.
"I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry," Obama said. "Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three — what I think we know separate and apart from this incident — is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that's just a fact."
In an interview with ABC on Thursday, Obama said he was surprised by the reaction to his comments. He didn't take back his words, but he did offer that he understood Crowley was an "outstanding police officer."
"My suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates," he said, "and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed."
But for many black men, the history and humiliation of racial profiling makes it almost impossible to keep cool.
In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama said he has personally felt its sting: "Security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores, white couples who toss me their keys as I stand outside a restaurant waiting for the valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason. I know what it's like to have people tell me I can't do something because of my color, and I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger."
So did this history lead Obama to step, however briefly, out of character — or maybe back INTO it?
"The notion of a friend, of a fellow human being, being humiliated in their home cuts to the core," answered Benjamin Todd Jealous, CEO of the NAACP, which is pushing for a federal ban on profiling.
"Racial profiling is like lightning, it's a form of humiliation that strikes randomly," he said. "It humiliates black men in front of their children, in their homes, in stores."
As an Illinois state senator, Obama was a key figure in the Legislature's 2003 decision, after years of debate, to require police to record information on race in traffic stops so that the data could be analyzed for evidence of profiling. But rather then settling the question, the results were vague enough to allow debates between police and minority advocates to continue.
In 2004, Obama's star was born with his speech at the Democratic National Convention calling for unity among all Americans. Since then, he had largely declined to delve into racial issues, choosing a middle ground that reflected his biracial parentage.
Forced during the campaign to respond to accusations that he shared the divisive views of former pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama delivered a landmark speech in Philadelphia that empathized both with blacks who face discrimination and whites who "don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race."
A long silence on race followed. When asked about solving "minority" problems like high unemployment or low educational achievement, Obama's position was that improving the economy and education for everyone would disproportionately help minorities.
In a speech last week to the NAACP, Obama told the black audience that structural racism continues to deny opportunity to blacks — and then he demanded more personal responsibility and "no excuses."
So when Obama angered police officers nationwide by siding with Gates, conservative radio host Mike Gallagher called it "stunning."
"He has positioned himself as a guy who wanted to move past the racial divisiveness of the past," Gallagher said. "On race, he's supposed to be a unifier. ... My fear is that racial identity is much more of the agenda for President Obama than he ever let on."
Gallagher wasn't the only one taken aback by Obama's choice of words.
"He said the Cambridge police acted stupidly," the black radio host Gayle King said in a conversation with Gates on her show. "I agree with him, but I was surprised that the president of the United States would use that particular phrase."
Responded Gates: "I think that the circumstances are so egregious ... (the word) logically popped into his head."
Associated Press Writer Christopher Wills in Springfield, Ill., contributed to this report.
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