Scholar's arrest provides lessons
By Charles Babington
WASHINGTON — President Obama's summary of the furor over a black Harvard professor's arrest was so understated, and perhaps obvious, that it barely rose above the cable-news driven din.
"Race is still a troubling aspect of our society," the nation's first black president said Friday, as he tried to tamp down a controversy he had helped fuel two days earlier.
What's less clear, however, is whether Obama's history-making election is triggering changes in the day-to-day racial interactions of ordinary Americans. After all, if one of the country's most prominent black scholars can be arrested in his home after a heated exchange with a white police officer, doesn't that suggest Obama's racial breakthroughs apply more to the political world than to the broader society?
No, say a variety of people who welcomed his plunge into the controversy, even if it caused the president a little heartburn. He is uniquely positioned, they say, to pour light on one troubling issue — racial profiling by police — and to nudge the nation to talk more openly about race in general, if only for a short while, as he did with a widely followed speech in March 2008.
"Obama's election gives us someone in a position of authority to speak personally to this experience," said James Lai, director of the Ethnic Studies program at Santa Clara University in California. Questions of whether police officers disproportionately stop minorities for questioning and frisking "will get a much more thorough debate now," he said.
But Obama "has to walk a very fine line" when discussing race, Lai said. "He must be careful not to fall into the box of being the black candidate."
Before summer's end, the mayor, district attorney and police officials in Cambridge, Mass., will convene a forum to grapple with the controversy over the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Sgt. James Crowley.
Gates said in an e-mail statement that he accepts Obama's invitation to begin talking and wants to work with the Cambridge Police Department. Crowley has not publicly responded to the invitation.
Even Obama was surprised by the intensity of the uproar over the arrest of Gates by officers who were checking a possible burglary report, which proved unfounded. On Wednesday, Obama said the officers had "acted stupidly" after they realized Gates was in his own home.
After two days of wall-to-wall media coverage, Obama placed conciliatory calls Friday to Gates and the arresting officer. He said he hoped the episode "ends up being what's called a 'teachable moment,' where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities."
Obama's actions will probably help that cause, and over time, he will reshape other parts of America's racial fabric, said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
His impact "will be measured in time" on the way it affects white Americans "and the lives and morale of black families," Guillory said. "To have a young, black family in the White House remains a powerful symbol, a powerful message, without any words being attached to it. We can't know the impact just yet."
The Washington Post contributed to this report.