Near the conclusion of his press conference on Wednesday, President Obama was asked to respond to the controversial arrest of distinguished Harvard Professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates.
Obama acknowledged to questioner Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times that Gates "is a friend, so I may be a little biased." The President stepped lightly regarding any role race may have played in the situation, saying that he was not there so could not be certain, however he did note that racial profiling has "a long history in this country." Obama argued that the "Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."
Watch video or read the President's complete response below:
Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don't know all the facts. What's been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys. He jimmied his way to get into the house. There was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. so far so good. Right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger in -- well, I guess this is my house now so it probably wouldn't happen. Let's say my old house in Chicago. here I'd get shot. But so far so good. They're reporting, the police are doing what they should. There's a call. They go investigate what happens. My understanding is at that point Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I'm sure there's some exchange of words but my understanding is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house. And at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped. 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 is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And 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 this 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 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 cast suspicion even when there is good cause, and that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody's going to be.
The New York Times placed the response within the greater narrative of President Obama's engagement on race.
Mr. Obama's response was his most animated performance of the hourlong news conference, and represented an extraordinary plunge by a president into a local law-enforcement dispute. And it opened a window into a world from which Mr. Obama is now largely shielded, suggesting the incident had struck a raw nerve with the president.
In the public spotlight, Mr. Obama has sought to transcend, if not avoid, the issue of race. As a candidate, he tried to confine his racial references to the difficulty of catching a cab in New York, although he was forced to confront it directly during the Pennsylvania primary when his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, became an issue. And last week, at the 100th convention of the NAACP in New York, he spoke in uncharacteristically personal terms about his rise to power as a black man, while warning black Americans not to make excuses for their failure to achieve.
At The New Republic Wednesday, John McWhorter wrote that black men's interactions with the police have "totemic status ... in the way countless people process being black and what it means" and is "the main thing keeping America from becoming 'post-racial' in any sense."