No sooner had President Obama cast his line in the deep waters of racial outrage, did he reel it in and backtrack somewhat from his criticism of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer who arrested Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates at the professor’s home. Police who were responding to a call from a “neighbor” who claimed someone was trying to break into a home confronted Dr. Gates, in his home. The official charge against Dr. Gates was disorderly conduct, as police claim he was belligerent during the incident. The police later dropped the charges.
At the end of his nationally televised news conference on health care reform last week, the President remarked that he felt the officer acted “stupidly” in arresting the renowned historian. Almost immediately, the local police union criticized Mr. Obama and the officer in question, Sergeant James Crowley, defended his actions. Within days, the President was explaining himself to the White House press corps, still expressing his outrage but saying that he should have chosen his words more carefully. Now the police union is demanding an apology from President Obama and it has been reported he is extending an invitation to Dr. Gates and Sergeant Crowley to the White House for a sit-down. For his part, Professor Gates has said it is time to move beyond the impact on him and explore the wider issue of racial profiling.
What is a President to do?
Well, for starters, do not cede ground if you are right. On this issue Mr. President, you were right in stating that Sergeant Crowley handled the incident stupidly. You were also right to explain how the anger expressed by Professor Gates was understandable. For too long Black men, of all occupations, have been conditioned to suppress their outrage over maltreatment for fear of being labeled “angry.” Let’s be clear, many of us are angry and rightly so. We are fatigued, depressed and indignant over the assumption of criminality of Black men in our nation. Our anger stems from one too many episodes of being watched by store security, disrespected by co-workers of lesser ability or being stopped by police for no logical reason, except for the fact that we are Black and driving a car. We are through with being America’s “Bogey man” and having to run from the enraged villagers or risk being the victim of police brutality, imprisonment, or worse, death, simply because our skin color gives others license to dehumanize us.
There always seems to be a ready excuse for the mistreatment of Black men or teenage boys. We have heard them, time and again, in every case in which police have shot and killed a Black male. The use of force or deadly force is always justified based on a police officer having to make a “quick” decision, the sighting of a weapon that never materializes during an investigation, or a witness description of the ubiquitous Black male. Who can forget the Charles Stuart incident when Boston police scoured the city for the Black man Stuart claimed had shot and killed his wife, who he actually murdered? Then there was the case of the county prosecutor in Camden, New Jersey, Sam Asbell, who claimed that two Black men in a pursuing vehicle had shot his car windows. There was no Black man, of course. Asbell, a Republican, was just trying to get sympathy for his reappointment to office by Governor Jim Florio, a Democrat. The incidents in which Black men have been killed by police are far too many to single out one or two. The thread that runs through all of these episodes is fear – society’s continuing phobia over Black men. How else could you describe the phone call that triggered the police coming to Professor Gates’ home and the decision by a “trained” officer to arrest a homeowner with identification, let alone one who is a leading figure in the town. However, Gates’ neighbor is apparently also unaware of the professor’s identity that suggests that the scholar, like most of us, is invisible to many Americans.
For a President who has taken on the task of reframing America’s racial discourse, this is where the rubber meets the road. His widely praised Philadelphia speech on race, made during the presidential campaign, means little if he feels it necessary to back off talking truthfully about racism because some whites are offended. Only two weeks ago, Mr. Obama was telling a mostly Black audience at the NAACP’s annual convention that Blacks must be more personally responsible. That should also apply to whites, and particularly individuals who are sworn to uphold the law. We cannot begin to address race if we do not address racism.