July 24, 2009
All of us say things we later regret every once in a while, but this has become a recurring problem with President Obama. Last month he did a 180-degree flip-flop on the protests in Iran, and today he reversed himself on the question of whether or not the police in Cambridge, Massachusetts responded properly to the report of a possible burglar by a neighbor. The "intruder" turned out to be none other than esteemed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the owner of the house, but the police did not recognize him. A series of misunderstandings ensued, tempers flared, and Gates was arrested. In his news conference on health care, the President was asked what he thought about that incident, and though he admitted he didn't know all the facts, he said "the Cambridge Police acted stupidly..." (See whitehouse.gov.) An ordinary local dispute thus became the occasion for another "national dialogue on race relations." Today Obama telephone Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, as well as Gates, trying to defuse tensions. He didn't apologize, but he did admit he should have chosen his words more carefully. See foxnews.com.
This is another case where a media frenzy spun out of control because a few key people with sensitive egos overreacted in dicey situations. The police overreacted, Gates overreacted, and then Obama overreacted. I agree with Eugene Volokh: "I don't see what the point of arresting Gates was." If I had lost my keys as Gates apparently did, I would probably be feeling pretty tense as well. Let's just chill out.
The professor at the center of the uproar, Henry Louis Gates, is the author of many books, and is known for having very sharp views on racism in America. He's perhaps not quite the radical that Prof. Cornel West is, but he's close to it.
On most days, having a black man as president makes you feel deeply proud to be an American, such as when Obama was visiting the locker room before the All Star Game last week. He can schmooze with the best of them, and nine times out of ten, he's going to make everybody feel better about each other. But then every once in a while, like on Wednesday night, Obama will say or do something that just makes you cringe, revealing the latent distrust that still persists in our multicultural society. Let's hope he plays it cooler from now on, and gets his facts straight before he opines on something. (Like health care, perhaps?) Whether or not the police officers had any racial prejudices, this incident does serve to remind us that such things happen, even in the 21st Century. The old joke about African-American motorists being arrested for "driving while black" is not entirely inaccurate.
Coincidentally, a friend pointed me to a hilarious video from way back in 1977 of Richard Pryor (who passed away in December 2005) playing the first black president. It's a perfect fit to this situation, because "President Pryor" was holding a White House press conference, starting off smoothly and calmly and then getting progressively riled up. The conclusion is a real hoot. Sometimes reality and off-the-wall satire come very close to merging with each other. See blackbusinessaffiliate.com; hat tip to Rich Raab.