Nothing like a question from out of left field to elicit some bare-boned truths about policing, race, and stupidity.
President Obama in a televised news conference, billed as an attempt to shore up allied support and win converts for his health care plan, turned to Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet for the final question of the evening. Did Ms. Sweet ask about universal health care? The ups and downs of a single-payer system? The heartburn of quaking Blue Dog Democrats over the cost of the Obama plan? Bill Kristol's blinkered, ideological suggestion that Obama's critics on the right sniff the blood and "Go for the Kill?" No.
She asked about the July 16 arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
By now, most know the facts. Last Thursday, the professor, just returned from China, cabbed from Logan International to his Cambridge home. Finding himself keyless, he stood on the porch of his lovely house and, with black taxi driver looking on, jimmied the door lock. Which prompted a neighbor to summon the cops. Who showed up after Professor Gates ("Skip" to his friend, the president) had worked his way into the living room. Words were exchanged, identification shown, an arrest made.
That's right. Gates, who must have been beat and irritable from the long return flight, was busted. In his own home. By a white cop. For "disorderly conduct."
And what, Ms. Sweet wanted to know, did the president think about all this?
Acknowledging that he wasn't there, and that he was relying on "reports" of the incident, Obama proceeded to label the "Cambridge police," not the arresting officer, "stupid." He went on to give voice to what was in the hearts and on the lips of many black citizens (and all other Americans who give a damn about human rights and civil liberties), namely that race was a factor here.
In my memory, only one other U.S. president ever made such a strong statement about police racism. In the aftermath of the Amadou Diallo police shooting in New York City, President Clinton condemned the actions of NYPD officers and asserted that Diallo would still be alive today were he white rather than black.
Now, was it Obama's turn. I wish he hadn't used the word stupid. I wish he hadn't, in effect and however inadvertently, accused the whole police force of stupidity. Even raging critics of the institution will occasionally concede: There are more than a few fine, sensitive and caring cops who perform a critical function in society. Cops who are far from stupid.
But what of Clinton's point? Would the Cambridge police officer who busted the renowned, revered professor in his own home done the same if the academic had been white? I don't believe so, not for a minute.
Which is why, however imperfectly he may have expressed it, President Obama did the cause of improved community-police relations a huge service by pulling no punches this evening. Young, less poised and polished, less well off black Americans than Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or Barack Obama just might benefit from the president's "stupid" remark.
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