Obama Gets It

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So the Cambridge police union wants an apology from President Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick for calling out the Cambridge Police Department for mishandling Skip Gates’ arrest? That’s some priceless gall considering that the Cambridge Police Department called the event “regrettable and unfortunate” and recommended that disorderly conduct charges against Gates be dropped. It’s especially nervy because the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, essentially said it would be a cold day in hell before he applogized to anyone for his own actions.

Crowley got a call from President Obama on Friday, in a sort of non-apology/apology fence-mending, after Obama faced widespread criticism for saying the police department “acted stupidly.” It was a fine example of the president’s ability to be magnanimous even toward people who are unworthy of magnanimity and unable to show it to others.

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Still, I was pleased that President Obama said what he said about the incident, specifically, and about racial profiling, in general. And I was very glad that he didn’t take any of it back.

“What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by police disproportionately,” he said. “That’s just a fact.”

It is indeed a fact, and it’s a fact that people of color live with every day. This is why what happened in Cambridge is so much bigger than Gates and Crowley. It’s also why it was entirely appropriate for President Obama to wade into this racially charged imbroglio and help shape the national discourse about what some people would like to believe is simply an overblown case of mistaken identity, clashing egos and political opportunism.

I was surprised that the president chose to speak out as forcefully as he did. It was a politically risky move, but one that was likely given much thought. We all know that the president is not a shoot-from-the-hip-and-worry-about-the-repercussions-later kind of guy, especially on matters of race. If anything, he’s usually too cautious. He inserted himself in a national public discourse that was long overdue because he knows and we know that if anyone can lead or shape such a discussion, he can.

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We know, too, that his views on race are nuanced, not reactionary, and that his outlook is unique because of his biracial background. We’ve heard him talk about race at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and in Philadelphia in a way that made people across the racial spectrum feel respected and understood. Most importantly, we know that Obama, through his words and deeds, and by virtue of his election, has made many Americans explore their own internal racial biases, and think, really think, about how we can and should bridge this country’s deep racial divide.

Doing this requires acknowledging some cold, hard truths about racism in the United States, whether institutionalized or individualized. The president said what he felt and what he knew. Skip Gates’ arrest, he said “is a sign of how race remains a factor in this society.”

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Can this fact really still be that difficult for some people to grasp in 2009 when even the country’s first black president says that as a black man, he could be shot while trying to get into his own house if mistaken for a burglar?

It’s not a stretch for many white people, or black people for that matter, to visualize a young black man, especially one from an inner-city neighborhood or who is dressed a particular way (think baggy jeans, oversized T-shirt, baseball cap) getting stopped, questioned, arrested, etc., by white policemen. You’d have to live in a cave to not have witnessed this taking place at least once on the evening news, in movies, on streets and highways. What is harder for many white people to understand is that this happens all the time, to all sorts of black people, but particularly black men, no matter what they are wearing, no matter their station in life and no matter the kind of car they drive.

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It happens in all sorts of locations and under various circumstances. Whether they’re driving through a mostly white neighborhood or through a rural town, walking around a mall or department store, standing on a street corner or making a transaction at a bank, they are often viewed and treated as suspects. Forget Driving While Black, Living While Black should be the new buzz word. Believe us when we tell you that Living While Black is hard.

Most white people have never experienced such treatment and could never imagine it happening to them or their loved ones. They don’t have to. None of us should have to. But if you’re black, you’ve probably experienced an unpleasant and potentially dangerous encounter with white police officers, or you know some black person who has.

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That’s why even President Obama and Gov. Patrick can relate. They know that if they were removed from their normal surroundings and the trappings of power and plunked down in some anonymous white neighborhood, at night and wearing jeans and a baseball cap, they might be confused for a burglar, too. They also understand that like Skip Gates, even a sport coat, pressed pants, sensible shoes and a fancy professional title can’t protect them from suspicion—or danger.

Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.

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