So was anything really accomplished at Thursday’s meeting between President Barack Obama, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley? Perhaps, in its own way, it was an amicable means of defusing what threatened to become a racial time bomb. The July 16th incident, and the president’s reaction to it, touched off a media firestorm only partly explained by the fact it’s summer, and media typically trolls for news about now.
I have to admit, there’s a part of me that takes umbrage at the notion that this meeting represented a watershed event in US race relations. In fact, the idea of a “beer summit” insults the memories of people like Medgar Evers, the four little girls bombed to death in the basement of a Birmingham church, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. These were people who died so these three plus Vice President Joe Biden could share that beer at the White House.
A harsh assessment? Maybe. But in this age of media hype, there’s no other way to put it. Put simply, could Gates have chilled a bit when confronted by Crowley? Sure. Could Crowley have defused the situation instead of blowing it up by arresting Gates? Yep. Could Obama have chosen his words more carefully, so as not to stoke the media fire? Yes again. Yet none of these things rise to the level of scrutiny the incident has received.
Why all the fuss? Because by using the words “acted stupidly”, Barack Obama stepped out of his assigned role as America’s non racial black president. Suddenly, as far as the media was concerned, he became a spokesman for his race. You can almost hear people thinking, “Geez, we didn’t elect him to talk about racial injustice. Racial responsibility, fine. But not this”.
Which brings up the question, why not this? Why shouldn’t this president be as free to talk about race in this context as, say, Bill Clinton was? Why hasn’t the issue of racial profiling moved beyond the occasional story in local media? Alas, Barack Obama learned he won’t be able to opine about these sorts of things in the future. Politically, the cost was too high.
When you’re trying to get health care reform passed, talking about race creates a problem. Barack Obama knows this, just as he knows knocking back a cold one with Crowley and Gates won’t change the attitude of that Boston cop who referred to Gates as a “jungle monkey”.
That actually takes work. So just what did Thursday’s beerfest actually accomplish? You tell me.