In the annals of White House racial initiatives, President Barack Obama’s “suds summit” is clearly a first. In gathering together Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts, the president sought to help ease some of the pain — by quaffing some drafts of barley and hops — that has emerged for both the participants and the nation in what has become known as the “Gatesgate” controversy of alleged racial profiling and recrimination.
It’s worth recounting the dramatic backdrop:
The shocking news came on July 16: Gates, perhaps the country’s top scholar of African-American studies, was arrested at his Cambridge home as he returned from a trip to China. Police responded to a 911 report on an attempted break-in at the residence. Upon arriving, Sgt. James Crowley, the initial officer at the scene, confronted an angry Gates. At Crowley’s request for the professor to step outside for questioning, Gates — who had already alleged racial discrimination — snapped back, “Yeah, I’ll speak with your mama outside.”
According to the police report, Gates was “loud and tumultuous” and his behavior “served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.” Allegations of racist cops, exacerbated by news photos of Gates handcuffed on his front porch, immediately ignited a roaring national debate on race in America.
The controversy might have stayed localized, except that in response to reporter Lynn Sweet’s question during a prime-time press conference on July 22, President Obama said that “the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.” The statement was ill-informed and was immediately seen as White House interference on the side of the embattled Gates. The backlash was enormous. The Cambridge police organizations quickly joined in arms behind the blue line. The local Fraternal Order of Police condemned Obama, saying, “He wasn’t there, and he doesn’t know what happened.” That was quickly followed by demands for an apology from a group of multiracial police officers standing in solidarity with Sgt. Crowley.
Perhaps most importantly, President Obama’s statements called into question his philosophical and policy commitments to a “post-racial” America. As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama proclaimed at the Democratic National Convention: “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
During the presidential primaries in 2008, responding to the race controversy surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” sermons, then-Senator Obama declared of the American mosaic: “It is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.” Despite being hailed as “Lincolnesque,” and as even recalling the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Senator Obama never actually denounced the race-hatred of his mentor Jeremiah Wright.
Moreover, throughout the primary campaign Obama was never too “transcendent” to react quickly to any perceived racial slights. Obama attacked Geraldine Ferraro for her suggestion that “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” Obama also acccused Hillary Clinton of slighting the legacy of Dr. King when she charged in January 2008 that “it took a president” to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As the Wall Street Journal put it at the time:
We’re not suggesting that the Obama campaign has never been justified in crying foul over racially tinged remarks out of the Clinton camp. When Bill Clinton gratuitously invoked Jesse Jackson after Mr. Obama won the South Carolina primary, he was clearly trying to define the senator’s victory in narrowly racial terms.
But for all of Mr. Obama’s soaring rhetoric about the nation’s need for a post-racial politics that “brings the American people together,” his campaign at times has seemed overly sensitive about race. It also seems to want it both ways. Mr. Obama claims that his brand of politics transcends race, but at the same time he’s using race as a shield to shut down important and legitimate arguments.
This background is crucial to understanding President Obama’s intervention on behalf of Gates last week. For despite Democratic Party racial infighting, the president has continued to promote a “transcendent” agenda of a “post-racial” America. When Obama announced his recent nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, he was emphatic in proclaiming her appointment as affirming America’s commitment to opportunity for all. The president said, “When Sonia Sotomayor ascends those marble steps to assume her seat on the highest court in the land, America will have taken another important step toward realizing the ideal that is etched about its entrance: Equal justice under the law.”