America and race in the Obama age

In what should have been a press conference on the status of his healthcare reform package, Barack Obama strayed from his usual habit of staying on message and waded in on the controversy surrounding renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his arrest by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police outside his own home last week. No one was surprised that the question came up in the hour-long media conference and the president evidently had a point of view. Obama’s statement that the police acted “stupidly” in handcuffing the professor, a 57 year old man with a cane, has done much more than anything else to give the story legs.

One week after Gates’s arrest, the facts related to the incident remain incomplete and ambiguous. The arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, was originally portrayed as an overzealous policeman falling prey to racial profiling. But photos relating to the incident show the presence of an African-American policeman and quite possibly an Hispanic officer as well. And we have since found out that Crowley teaches a class at the police academy in how to avoid racial profiling. Crowley argues that the arrest was prompted by disorderly conduct and the fact the call was related to a possible burglary in progress. However, it is still not clear why Gates was handcuffed once it was established he was indeed at his home.

Gates has since asked for an apology from officer Crowley, which Crowley has refused to offer. Thanks to his comments, Obama now finds himself at the heart of this new conversation on race. While the incident may be banal in its impact and regrettable in its implications, it seems the conversation is expanding beyond the city limtis of Cambridge.

Much has been made about the historic election of the first African-American president. All seem in agreement that America has changed. And while the high-profile controversy over Pastor Wright during the primaries afforded Americans a new and fresher look at racism, it seems that the question of race is still very much a part of the American discourse. Was President Obama correct in intervening?

I believe it was inevitable that he state his position. We can argue, and his aides would probably concur, that the nature of his intervention detracted from the main message of the day about his healthcare package. However, as president, and as an African-American president at that, he has a moral duty to state his view. Racial profiling is a reality that is supported by the facts—being a Black or Latino man in America often means dealing with numerous arrests and traffic violations. Obama was right to point this out. His election did not translate into an automatic elimination of America’s original sin. Evidence has shown that leadership, legislation, judicial activism, dialogue, and mutual understanding are the only way to progress in America on race.

However, electing Obama does provide an opportunity to consider racism in a more composed and comprehensive manner. This is why having the first African-American occupying the Oval office was so significant in the broad scheme of things. Obama, both as a candidate and as an elected official, has usually transcended this debate, but he cannot avoid the impact it has on individuals in everyday life. Discrimination and stereotypes go on all the time.

Just recently, Obama was asked in the course of a press conference about his “prudent” reaction to demonstrations in Iran following last month’s election . He responded by saying: “All of you in the news are on a 24 hour news cycle. I’m not.” It was a wise reply that can now be applied to the conversation on race.

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