PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Perhaps the biggest “teachable moment” from the Henry Louis Gates Jr. saga was for President Barack Obama: If you want to improve race relations, you have to enter the fray.
Even some of Obama’s fiercest opponents say that by bringing together the black professor and the white police officer who arrested him, the president had orchestrated an unlikely and unifying moment, a peaceable kingdom in the Rose Garden.
Symbolic? Yes. Made for TV? Certainly. But these things could not obscure the fact that a president who has tried to transcend racial matters was down in the arena, talking about race.
“The cynic in me wants to shoot holes in it, the critic in me wants to pick it apart,” said conservative radio host Mike Gallagher. “But I’m sorry, you have two sides, polar opposites in a racially tinged confrontation like this, sitting down with the president of the United States over a beer at the White House?
“This is a great step forward in showing how you can take a confrontation, a conflict, and make a positive out of it.”
This also is the kind of direct action Obama had sidestepped as he sought the support of white voters weary of racial dissonance.
In March, Obama was asked whether he agreed with Attorney General Eric Holder’s comments that many Americans have been “cowards” because “we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”
“I’m not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions,” Obama told The New York Times. “I think what solves racial tensions is fixing the economy, putting people to work, making sure that people have health care.”
The standoff between Gates and Obama has the potential to exacerbate tensions. Many blacks supported Gates’ claim that he was racially profiled by Cambridge, Mass. police Sgt. James Crowley, while many whites insisted Crowley displayed no bias in investigating a possible break-in at Gates’ home.
Gates demanded an apology from Crowley and called him a “rogue policeman.” After Obama said police had “acted stupidly” in arresting an angry Gates for disorderly conduct, Crowley said Obama was “way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts.”
The atmosphere was much different after Thursday’s conversation.
“No tension,” Crowley said.
Mostly, racial conflicts fade out without any consultation, let alone resolution. Imagine the widow of Sean Bell meeting with the New York police officers who shot her husband, or the black teens in Jena, La., talking to the white schoolmate they attacked.
That made the White House meeting even more remarkable _ “revolutionary and potentially healing, a peace pipe for modern times,” wrote the right-leaning columnist Kathleen Parker.
“When future archaeologists excavate our history, they will doubtless marvel at the symbolism of that simple gesture,” she wrote.
It probably never would have happened had Obama not criticized Crowley, a mistake that demanded damage control.
“His advisers would have said, ‘No, it’s not about health care!”’ said Rev. Jim Wallis, president of the progressive Christian group Sojourners and author of “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”
It was political theater _ but it sent a powerful message, Wallis said.
“It was a parable for what needs to happen off-camera all the time _ that kind of conversation,” he said. “Obama was saying, ‘This now needs to happen.”’
Obama has rarely joined that conversation since his national debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, when he declared, “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America _ there’s the United States of America.”
But as the first black president, son of a white mother and black father, many say he is uniquely suited _ even obligated _ to lead the discussion.
“As a white man, I would say the nation needs a president to be proactive on race,” Wallis said. “He has a power to be that, the capacity to be that, the identity and the history.”
Gallagher said no one besides Obama could have orchestrated this type of resolution.
“You had to almost have a black president who’s capable of saying to Gates, the man who feels aggrieved and insulted, ‘I need you at the White House.”’
“Obama said … ‘Let’s show the world that we’re trying to advance race relations rather than digress,”’ he continued. “And you know what? As one of his fiercest critics, he gets an A-plus on this. I’m just blown away.”
Much has been made of the symbolism of a black president and how he provides an opportunity for people to talk about race. In some ways, race is always an element of any conversation Obama is involved in.
But “watercooler conversations aren’t enough any more,” Wallis said. “They don’t go deep enough, they are too short and they are very safe. You gotta sit at the table.”
That’s exactly what Crowley, Gates and Obama did on the White House lawn, along with Vice President Joe Biden, whose presence conveniently balanced out the image.
Earlier, Crowley and Gates talked after they crossed paths while separately touring the White House with their relatives.
They continued their tour as one large group.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. AP news researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.
Pictured above are Sgt. James Crowley, left, President Barack Obama, center, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., right.