"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt

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Friday, July 24, 2009

The Race Debate that Obama Desperately Wants to Avoid

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates, a professor at Harvard and author of The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (an extremely influential book in literary criticism), seemed destined to be one of those short-lived hot topics that routinely make the rounds of blogs, talk shows, and college classrooms. Cries of racism echo out across the country, and those wanting to engage in (as well as those forced into) the loaded, emotional, and - above all - repetitive discussions are called upon to divide themselves into camps, posted into binary opposition. Especially juicy discussions cause teeth to gnash in anger, fists to clench in frustration, voices to be raised in exasperation. The facts of the case, if they were ever known, are lost amid the tumult that follows, and are frankly beside the point anyway-- for this is discussion about the big picture: race in America. For a few weeks tempers would periodically flare up across America and personal insults would be thrown carelessly about within classrooms and in various public and private venues, but before long both fickle camps, already bored of this most recent tussle, would settle back into their respective corners and wait. At the next prominent arrest, or the next allegation of police beating, they would spring forward preplanned talking points and the same stale arguments in clenched hand.

The situation changed, however, when reporter Lynn Sweet asked Obama about the Gates arrest during the president's prime time Obamacare PR speech. William A. Jacobson at Legal Insurrection recognized the significance (he has posted a YouTube clip of the question and Obama's entire initial response-- be sure to watch it for context, especially if you have only seen excerpts of it).

The question posed by Sweet was "Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you? And what does it say about race relations in America?" Obama's response follows in its entirety from the transcript at the Chicago Sun-Times:

"Well, I -- I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don't know all the facts. What's been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house; there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place.

"So far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into -- well, I guess this is my house now, so -- (laughter) -- it probably wouldn't happen."(Chuckling.) But let's say my old house in Chicago -- (laughter) -- here I'd get shot. (Laughter.) But so far, so good. They're -- they're -- they're reporting. The police are doing what they should. There's a call. They go investigate. What happens?

"My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I'm sure there's some exchange of words. But my understanding is -- is that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house, and at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

"Now, I've -- I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

"And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately. That's just a fact.

"As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.

"That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

"And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently, and oftentime for no cause, casts suspicion even when there is good cause. And that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody's going to be."

Anytime a politician precedes a serious statement with "I may be a little biased here" and "I don't know all the facts," it should be, hopefully, followed by: "I'm afraid I'm going to have to reserve judgement until I know all the facts." Yet Obama, like so many educated people (politicians and non-politicians alike), feels free to throw out idle speculation and leaps of logic disguised as intelligent deliberation.

Not surprisingly, Obama sides with his friend "Skip" Gates, saying that the Cambridge police acted stupidly and then tying the whole incident to police stopping a disproportionate number of Hispanic and blacks. He has not only taken a side, but expanded the argument away from Gates' arrest to that of the racism inherent in the police. No matter how Obama wants to phrase it-- whether it is "a long history" of disproportionately stopping minorities, "potential bias" in the ranks, or "race remains a factor in society (is it at all possible for it not to be in any heterogeneous society?)," the clear implication is that the police unfairly targets Hispanics and blacks because the police are bigots. Whether you believe this to be true or not, that is clearly what is being said.

Not wanting to enter into this long and complex racial argument in this relatively short post that's not actually about the specific issue of race or police, I offer no personal opinion on the matter here. Please, don't presume my belief, however-- it may be quite different than you think.

But now we have this little bit of theatrics. With his popularity already waning, below 50% prior to this incident, Obama offers up this "sort-of apology" that's actually mere damage control (I can't find a transcript yet, but a YouTube video is at Instapundit's link). My favorite Obama line: "I actually just had a conversation with Sergeant Jim Crowley, the officer involved, and I have to tell you, as I said yesterday, my impression of him was that he was an outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation."

Obama said that Sgt. Jim Crowley (by all means, please use his familiar first name) "was an outstanding police officer and a good man?" When did Obama say this? Not very long after saying that the police, outstanding and good Sgt. Crowley, acted stupidly for arresting Gates. Not long after saying "that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately. That's just a fact." And not long after jumping at the chance to tie Gates' arrest to a "long tradition" of police bigotry. That is also just a fact. What does it imply?

Obama saying now that there was an overreaction by the police and that "Professor Gates [no more 'Skip Gates' one notices] probably overreacted as well," doesn't erase the plain fact that Obama initially took a side, presumed racism (why else bring it up during his answer), and assigned blame for the whole incident solely at the police's front door. He says nothing in his first answer about any sort of overreaction by Gates. Instead, after offering an excuse for Gates ("any of us would be pretty angry"), Obama talks about police bias for four transcribed paragraphs. It seems like he wants us all to now forget about that.

Obama brings up race and bias, inseparable from the incident in this country, and then backs away within forty-eight hours-- abruptly lauding the arresting officer's "honesty," "fine track record on racial sensitivity," and goodness. And just how many months ago did Attorney General Eric Holder say "[t]hough this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."

Obama goes on to say during this further clarification that his "hope is, as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment." Oh, I think that this is very likely to be what's called a teachable moment. But what's really being taught by a backpedaling Obama right now?

UPDATE: check out Mark Finkelstein's rundown of early morning show's guests regarding Gatesgate at NewsBusters. Have a good laugh. To steal a line, I think there's nothing like vaudeville.

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