The right wing longs to transform Barack Obama into their stereotype of Al Sharpton, a factional—and fictional—character in a sensationalist drama of White versus Black. Racializing Obama was the Right's aim throughout the 2008 election, most conspicuously in their operatic shock that the candidate's pastor had misgivings about a nation in which he had been born a second-class citizen, and at Michelle Obama's awkwardly phrased but plainly well-meant statement that candidate Obama's victories had made her "proud' of her country.
Thus it was no surprise when conservative media from Rupert Murdoch to Matt Drudge pounced on the President's remark about a Cambridge, Mass., police officer "stupidly" arresting African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his home. Murdoch's supermarket tabloid, the New York Post, devoted its screaming cover to the "Race Storm" it was all too typically fanning—relegating to secondary status the dragnet arrests of 44 politicians, rabbis, and assorted fixers in a jaw-dropping corruption scandal next door in New Jersey. You almost have to admire Murdoch, Drudge and company for their skill in bending the curve of news coverage. The rest of the press followed their lead; after all, this story would sell papers and spike ratings. Besides, health care, the most important issue for the president and the country, is not all that important for many in the media, who already have good coverage.
With the controversy sucking more and more oxygen away from the president's health-care message, Obama decided to mute his criticism, calling both the arresting officer, James Crowley, and Professor Gates and inviting them to the White House for a beer. Obama didn't say he was substantively wrong, just that he could have "calibrated [his] words differently." It was an adroit sequel to a rhetorical crack that was being manipulated into a racial divide. With Obama, pride doesn't get in the way of the bottom line; for the sake of health care, he decided he had to quash the distraction before it grew into a miniseries.
But the Gates story is more than a distraction; it's a window into the continuing inequities of America's justice system. The president's words may have been impolitic, but they weren't inaccurate. Amid the indignation of police unions, which defend almost any member who's done almost anything, last week's Kabuki coverage all but ignored the undeniable evidence of racial profiling in America. Minorities do get stopped and frisked far more often than whites and at times police fictionalize arrest reports to retroactively redeem their conduct, fabricating dubious claims that a suspect brandished a knife or a gun. Tufts scholar Sam Sommers, writing for Psychology Today, concluded: "[L]et's be honest: White Harvard professors just don't get charged with disorderly conduct in their own homes."
No one can know what motivated James Crowley, the Cambridge police officer, when he arrested and handcuffed Gates, who has to lean on a cane to stand and walk. Perhaps it was race: What was an African-American doing in this house? Perhaps it was town versus gown. Once it had been established that Gates was a Harvard professor, that should have suggested to all but the dimwitted or the ill-intentioned that he wasn't a burglar. Instead, the officer may have resented taking "lip" from a denizen of the ivy enclave.
Crowley's own explanations make a case for the latter. "The professor," he said, "could have resolved the issue by just quieting down and/or by going back in the house." So obviously Crowley knew at that point that it was Gates' house, which suggests that the officer overreacted because he was "pissed off"—less than exemplary conduct in someone whose job includes carrying a gun.
Telling off a police officer is not a crime in this country—unless the officer's ego creates a misplaced sense of authority or omnipotence. If an American has a right to call the president of the United States "a fool," or "a Marxist," or worse—just read the wingnut blogs—then why can't a citizen give some "lip" to a police officer without being accused of the concocted crime of "disorderly conduct?"
The right-wing attempt to exploit the president's comment in order to rally a race-based opposition is not only ugly, but dangerous. If it were ever to succeed, the country would pay a terrible price in the form of renewed antagonisms and suspicions for a generation or more. America has made progress—Obama's election was a singular proof of that. But the president weighed in as he did at last week's press conference because he knows from personal experience that we still have a long way to go. Obama backtracked from that hard-earned truth—without betraying it—not just because he cares about health reform, but because on race, his abiding hope for America is to heal, not divide.
That's worth a beer.