President Obama’s prime-time press conference was making little news but moving along smartly, on schedule not to run over into "America’s Got Talent," until the last question, from a reporter for a Chicago newspaper who has covered Obama since he came to Washington.
She asked about the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., perhaps the nation’s leading expert on the history of race relations in America. Obama noted that "Skip" Gates was a friend of his, "so I might be a little biased here." So far, so good.
Arriving home, Gates and his driver tried to force a balky door to get into his house. A neighbor misinterpreted this as an attempted burglary and called the cops.
Obama observed, "I don’t know all the facts," and he should have kept that in mind. But this is one of those defining incidents that Americans can’t resist endlessly hashing over in search of deeper meanings about race, class and our society in general.
Gates and the officer sent to investigate got into some kind of altercation, one of those pointless confrontations that likely would have quickly dissipated if one party or another had backed away. Who knows?
Maybe the officer was abrupt and demanding. Gates may have been tired and jet-lagged from his flight back from China. The upshot was that a 42-year-old white police sergeant led a 58-year-old black distinguished scholar away in handcuffs to be charged with disorderly conduct for "loud and tumultuous behavior." Tumultuous? Well, it is Cambridge, Mass., after all.
Regrettably, the president went on to characterize the police as acting "stupidly." Maybe so, but Obama wasn’t in a position to make that judgment. Unfortunately for the hour he had spent arguing for health-care reform, the blogosphere and the TV and radio talkers seized on "stupidly," and some part of America automatically divided into those who can only see the incident in black or white: Gates brought it on himself; it wouldn’t have happened if he was white.
Obama went on to talk about the problem of blacks and Hispanics being disproportionately singled out by law enforcement, and speak eloquently about the "incredible progress" we’ve made in race relations, testimony to that being the fact that "I am standing here."
Did we mention that the press conference was about health care?