WASHINGTON (AP) —President Barack 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,” America’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.”
Even Obama was surprised by the intensity of the uproar over the arrest of professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge, Massachusetts, officers who were checking a possible burglary report, which proved unfounded. At a Wednesday news conference, Obama said the officers had “acted stupidly” after they realized Gates was in his own home.
The president said he had worked on a racial profiling bill as an Illinois state legislator “because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately.”
After two days of wall-to-wall media coverage, Obama placed conciliatory calls July 24 to Gates and the arresting officer, and he popped into the White House press area. 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,” said Guillory, a Louisiana native and former journalist. “To have a young, black family in the White House remains a powerful symbol, a powerful message, without any words being attached to it,” he said. “We can’t know the impact just yet.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore, agrees.
“Things are getting better,” said Cummings, 58, who as a young lawyer was often the only black professional in the courtroom. “But we’ve still got a long ways to go.”
Nearly all his black associates think Gates was a victim of racial profiling, Cummings said, while 70 percent of his white friends do not. “We look at these problems of race out of our own glasses,” he said, “and they are based on our experiences.”
Cummings said Obama’s election has given young minorities greater hopes of achieving their dreams. “But they still have to go to the same schools,” which are often substandard, he said. A future Barack Obama may face fewer racial hurdles, Cummings said, but he or she won’t reach the White House if they lack access to decent schools, health care and job opportunities.
In a way, Obama made a similar point July 24, saying he had to cool the rhetoric over the Gates affair to refocus the political world on his top priority: revamping the U.S. health care system.
Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and other presidents might have ducked a reporter’s question about Gates’ arrest simply by saying it was a local matter or they lacked enough details to comment. Obama would have had a harder time doing that. As the first black president, he is better situated – but also more obligated – to address racial matters.
Still, Obama rarely mentions race without prompting. And he addresses it in depth only when scandals or big controversies essentially force his hand.
When the black minister Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary racial remarks threatened his presidential bid early last year, Obama delivered a speech that was widely regarded as among the most comprehensive and nuanced addresses on race ever delivered by a top U.S. politician.
But race received only passing mentions after that. And Obama’s damage control on Friday was reminiscent of the Wright episode, when a racial tempest was overshadowing his message and agenda.
Obama made no apologies Friday for diving into the Gates matter, even as he said he should have used more judicious words at first.
“The fact that this has become such a big issue, I think, is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society,” he said in the White House briefing room. “Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio.”
Charles Babington covers the White House for The Associated Press.
Photo: President Barack Obama