There is no greater bully pulpit in the world than that of the presidency of the United States. At 2:30 p.m. on Friday, President Obama, before a stunned White House Press Corps, used the reach of his megaphone to try to tame a wildfire started two days earlier when he waded into the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest case.
The president’s remarks were politically necessary because he realized that no one is talking about health care, and everyone is talking about race. As we all know by now, and as his remarks Friday indicate, President Obama is a cautious man, particularly when it comes to matters of race. But I was relieved to see that he did not “apologize” to the officer in question or the Cambridge police department.
Despite conservative talk radio’s protestations to the contrary, the president is no Rev. Wright, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton or any of the other so-called “race pimps.” His remarks were consistent with the poise and caution we saw from him all through the 2008 presidential campaign, when he walked a tight rope of race and racial stereotypes that had derailed other black politicians who came before him.
His much heralded speech on race relations in Philadelphia in the spring of 2008, was measured, open, candid and historically accurate. So were his comments on Friday. In fact, many in the black community, including me, have been quietly unhappy with how much the president downplays the issue of race, particularly as it relates to economic disparities. In defense of the president, he cannot win whatever he does: If he speaks out on race, he risks offending millions of whites who supported him, and if he doesn’t, he risks alienating millions of blacks who look to him as the embodiment of all of their hopes and dreams. As an attorney, I have tried, over the past couple days, since Sgt. Crowley emerged, to listen carefully to both side in the Gates arrest saga, and I have reviewed the arrest report several times.
The phrase that continues to bother me over and over again is where Sgt. Crowley writes in the arrest report (p.2 paragraph 1) the following: “While I was lead to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence. . . I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior Gates exhibited toward me.” Hold that thought for a moment. Now, let’s go back to President Obama’s Wednesday night presser and his controversial statement that the Cambridge Police acted “stupidly.” The president is 100 percent factually correct based on the officer’s own police report. If, in fact, the officer believed Gates was “lawfully in” his residence that should have been the end of it. Period. Done. Finito.
Officer Crowley could have diffused the situation by saying: “Mr. Gates, I am sorry for any confusion. I was doing my job to protect you, sir. I don’t appreciate your talking about my mother and yelling racial insults at me. It is not necessary and unbecoming of a man like you. I hope you have a nice day, sir.” A man’s home is his castle—or is that no longer true in America? Officer Crowley was right to be insulted and offended by Gates’ verbal attacks on him. But did it rise to the level of arresting Gates? He had no weapons; he did not strike anyone; he was not throwing anything—he was trash talking—“playin’ the dozens” with the officer in a way that maybe only black folks truly understand.
Is it now unlawful to talk trash in your own home/porch if you don’t like something? Please someone send me that Cambridge city ordinance. The police are not our enemies, however, if Crowley an expert in racial profiling, diversity training, and how to work through these types of situations he should have expected the response he got from Gates as a black man who was in his own home and was being wrongly questioned by the police under suspicion of breaking and entering.
The bottom line is that the president was right to speak out against racial injustice & racial profiling given this nation’s history with race and police brutality against black men.
Sophia A. Nelson is regular contributor to The Root.