Obama Jumps Into Henry Louis Gates Fray

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Last night's health-care press conference by President Obama was a study in careful wording and cautious recalibration. While he avoided directly answering some questions brought by reporters on the issue of the evening, and stayed relatively dry when discussing the ins and outs of the legislation, his most direct and impassioned moment seemed to be when he was discussing something entirely different. Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet asked him about the Cambridge, Massachusetts, arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who was charged with disorderly conduct after police questioned him for entering his own house. Obama acknowledged that Gates is a friend, cracked a joke, and then immediately took a stance.

"If I was trying to jigger into … well, I guess this is my house now, so it probably wouldn't happen. But let's say my old house in Chicago. Here, I'd get shot.

"Now, 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's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement 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 often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause."

Already, the political press is in a tizzy. Conservative bloggers argue that it was out of line for Obama to spend so much time talking about a local matter, undermine a hard-working police department, and to call an officer's actions "stupid." Obama defenders say he had every right to weigh in, both as president and as a longtime advocate against racial profiling. With those conflicting views combined, plus the straight news, it's fair to say that coverage of this one small portion of the presser rivals — if not exceeds — the coverage of the actual subject matter of the evening, explaining to America the important debate over health care reform.

Obama Wades Into a Volatile Racial Issue [NYT]
Related: John McWhorter decodes the Gates incident for New York.