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.”
Never mind that Judge Sotomayor is the left’s identity-politics nominee par excellence. The president’s appointment of “the next token justice” would demonstrate to the nation that we had overcome the politics of race privilege and exclusion.
Now, with Obama’s “Gatesgate” controversy, the president has no hiding place in lofty rhetoric and feel-good affirmative-action politics. As commentator Melanie Phillips wrote last week:
Now, thanks to the histrionics of Henry Louis Gates, we can see how Obama’s dysfunctional attitude to race plays out in real time. Gates’s arrest was an honest and understandable mistake by the Cambridge police who were investigating what appeared to be a break-in. It clearly had nothing to do with Gates being black — not least because other officers backing up the arresting officer were non-white. Gates’s protests were preposterous, and vividly demonstrated the pathological resentment and injustice — not to mention the strutting arrogance and narcissism — of anti-racist “victim culture.”
For the president of the United States to get involved at all in such a local matter was off-limits. For him to do so without even bothering to discover the facts was disturbing. For him to damn the Cambridge police as ‘stupid’ whereas it was clearly Gates who was “stupid” (and worse), thereby demonstrating how the presidential knee automatically jerks to the crudest of anti-white (and anti-police) tunes regardless of the facts, was deeply alarming.
Indeed, the administration came to realize just how badly it had stumbled on the matter. By Thursday of last week Press Secretary Robert Gibbs sought to repair the damage while meeting with reporters on Air Force One:
Let me be clear. He was not calling the officer stupid, OK? … He was denoting that … at a certain point the situation got far out of hand, and I think all sides understand that.
And then, realizing such a “walk back” might be insufficient, the following day the president invited Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley to the White House to “share a beer” and to perhaps create “better communication and a dialogue between communities and police.” (At the same time, the president “did not back down from his contention that police had overreacted by arresting the Harvard professor for disorderly conduct after coming to his home to investigate a possible break-in.”)
So, on Thursday, July 30, Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley joined the president and Vice-President Joseph Biden on the White House lawn for some cold ones. Beer-drinkers of America are weighing in on the choice of beverages. But it’d be unfortunate if a prolonged debate over domestic versus imports were to foam over both the promise of the event and the lost opportunities some may lament.
Probably most significant is that neither Gates nor Crowley offered apologies for their mutual misunderstanding. As Peter Wallsten and Mike Dorning report, “no apologies were exchanged” at the meeting. In a commentary at The Root, Professor Gates avoided specific details of the mediation. Addressing his hopes for the future, Gates said, “I am hopeful that we can all move on, and that this experience will prove an occasion for education, not recrimination.”
And Sgt. Crowley, at a follow-up press conference, appeared professional but mildly disappointed: “What I think we saw today was two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue.” Yet in a positive sign, Sgt. Crowley indicated that he and Gates were planning a private get-together to continue the dialogue.
Perhaps not so for President Obama. He released a brief statement that sought to end the matter as political hot-potato: “I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw [a] positive lesson from this episode.” But if the president is serious about maximizing the lessons from this “teachable moment,” he can’t let the issue fade away.
Obama’s credibility as a racial healer has never been on the line more powerfully than during the last two weeks. In both his campaign and presidency, he has yet to make a serious attempt at healing the racial wounds of this nation, wounds that have been opened anew as the tattered gauze binding our salve of rights’ progress has been ripped away by the administration’s racial opportunism.
And it’s not a good sign that the White House press corps made aggressive efforts yesterday to tamp down political expectations of the summit. Yet if President Barack Obama hopes to achieve success as a truly post-racial president, he needs to belly up to the bar of color-blind justice and opportunity and announce that this Bud’s for genuine racial accommodation, compromise, and transcendence.