President Obama has stepped into the minefield of racial politics, spawning a furor and inadvertently raising fresh doubts that America is anywhere close to being a post-racial society.
Obama set off a firestorm at his prime-time news conference Wednesday night when he said that police in Cambridge, Mass., "acted stupidly" by arresting his friend, renowned Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black, at his home for alleged disorderly conduct. On Friday afternoon, Obama tried to tamp down the growing furor with a mea culpa.
Obama told White House reporters that he had just talked by phone to the arresting policeman, Sgt. James Crowley. The president praised Crowley as an "outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation—and I told him that." Obama went on to say, "And because this has been ratcheting up—and I obviously helped to contribute to ratcheting it up—I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically—and I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sergeant Crowley." He added: "To the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate."
Obama said there was probably an "overreaction" by both the police and by Gates—a far different reaction than his initial support for Gates.
But Obama went on to say, "Race is still a troubling aspect of our society." He said he hoped everyone would calmly ponder ways to improve race relations and relations "between police officers and minority communities."
Trying to defuse the situation, Obama also said he and Crowley talked about the three of them—Gates, Crowley, and the president—'"having a beer here in the White House."
White House officials said Obama had a "positive discussion" by phone with Gates later Friday afternoon.
One reason why Obama made his unexpected mea culpa was that he concluded that the Cambridge incident was distracting attention from his proposed overhaul of healthcare, which is his top domestic priority and which he had wanted to focus on this week. He told reporters, "Over the last two days as we've discussed this [arrest] issue, I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to healthcare."
The incident started when Gates returned home from a trip July 16 and found that his door was jammed. He forced the door open, and a neighbor, noticing the situation and suspecting a burglary, summoned police. Crowley, who is white, arrived and asked Gates for identification. The professor apparently provided it, but an argument ensued. Gates was handcuffed and taken into custody for disorderly conduct. The charge was later dropped.
Crowley, who has taught police courses in how to avoid racial profiling, told reporters Thursday that he acted appropriately and said that Gates started "yelling" and became "irrational." Robert Haas, the Cambridge police commissioner, told reporters Thursday that while he regretted Gates's arrest, "I believe that Sgt. Crowley acted in a way that is consistent with his training at the department and consistent with national standards of law enforcement protocol." Haas added: "I do not believe his actions in any way were racially motivated."
Gates, however, expanded his criticism, telling reporters that Crowley was "a rogue policeman" and saying the incident showed that black men in America still face serious prejudice and are very vulnerable to police excesses.
The Gates incident spawned outrage among blacks who agree that there is still much bigotry in the country. But Obama's initial comments angered some police officers and their supporters, who say the cop was only doing his job.
On Thursday, Obama told ABC's Nightline that it "doesn't make sense" to arrest a man in his own home and added that he didn't understand why there was such an uproar over his remarks. But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried to modify what the president had said. Gibbs told reporters separately that the situation apparently got "out of hand" for both Gates and Crowley.
Updated on 7/24/09