We consider it a seminal moment in presidential history. Toward the end of his news conference on health care reform on Thursday night, President Obama reacted to the ongoing crisis surrounding the arrest of renowned Harvard University scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates. In a moment of clarity, the President made two profound observations that demonstrated the value of having a different perspective in the White House. President Obama said he “understood” how anyone would be angry if accosted in his or her home and said the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly” in arresting Dr. Gates. It took a Black President to be able to convey the frustrations so many Black men have had after an encounter with police.
For his honesty, the President has come under criticism by people who doubt Dr. Gates’ claims that the police acted without cause and their actions were racist. The offending officer has spoken publicly and said emphatically that he is not a racist and the local police union is supporting him. No matter what the counter-claim, the fact that the President of the United States made his opinion known is a true sign that change has come to the nation’s capital.
quoteThe issue of police misconduct has forever been a local issue as law enforcement is the purview of state and local governments. For years, in many jurisdictions the Black community’s concern over police misconduct and brutality was ignored. Even the most egregious incidents, the ones that reach the Department of Justice, have been viewed, as “isolated incidents” by many whites who simply cannot fathom that police would violate the public trust. Yet, for Blacks, and Black males particularly, the daily sense of powerlessness against the excesses of police is a reality that will not go away. The reason why the treatment of Dr. Gates has struck a nerve with Blacks is that it confirms what we have known: no matter what your station in life, the unifying thread of race makes certain that our existences are intertwined.
Hearing President Obama express his outrage over the treatment of Dr. Gates validates what so many Blacks have experienced for years. The genie is finally fully out of the bottle. In that one honest moment of introspection by the President, we have a clear example of why his presence in the Oval Office is so important. For not only do we appreciate Mr. Obama’s sentiments but we also have every confidence that his administration will not idly sit by and let local police engage in abusive tactics. His posture on this issue is just as important as his posture on torture in relation to detained terrorist suspects. We are hopeful that a reinvigorated Department of Justice, under Attorney General Eric Holder, will take up police misconduct as one of the agency’s priorities.
As to critics of Mr. Obama’s saying that the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” there is no response that can enlighten the truly ignorant. Despite the many verified incidents of police misconduct, there are those who refuse to accept the fact that not all citizens are treated equally. They will never “get it” because they will never know what it feels like to be degraded and feeling as if there is no recourse. However, we stand a better chance now that the Communicator-in-Chief has laid it on the line.