What’s Been Missing from Obama’s Response to the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

For this reason I was apprehensive about listening to the President’s recent speech at the NAACP centennial anniversary for fear that he would once again get on his personal responsibility soap box. Such rhetoric plays well in the media. As expected, his “no excuses” sound bite was the only part of the speech that made the news cycle and was played ad nauseam.

While I agree that we need to teach our children that racism is no excuse for poor school performance, I also believe that academic and professional achievement does not immunize anyone from racism, which has indeed stifled the potential of countless young people in this country.

How one successfully navigates a system which automatically assumes he or she is intellectually inferior or is an affirmative action baby undeserving of his or her achievements (i.e. Geraldine Ferraro’s comments about Obama during the primary election) is a lesson parents must provide young people as well. But once again Obama’s gross generalizations about Black parenting and Black underachievement lent credence to the time worn assertion that Black anti-intellectualism and the dysfunctional Black family lay at the root of what ails Black communities.

Therefore, I was not a little shocked by the President’s pointed response on July 21, 2009 to a question posed by Chicago journalist Lynn Sweet regarding the recent arrest of renowned Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.

While on the one hand I thought some of his remarks crossed the line, on the other hand I thought, “Finally, he provides an unambiguous response to a question on the dilemma of race in this country.”

While Obama rightfully stated that he did not know if race played a part in the Gates controversy, his exposé on the reality of racial profiling and the disproportionate targeting of Blacks and Latinos by law enforcement made him the advocate, however unintentional, for those at the bottom of the racial food chain. By doing so, Obama transgressed polite politics before a majority white audience as he gave voice to the current dilemma of the abuse of police authority in minority communities. As one writer quipped, “Finally, Obama sounded like a Black Man.” Witnessing such a rare occurrence caused me to proclaim with glee, “Indeed change has truly come to America.”

But that was then.

Obama stated in his book The Audacity of Hope that he learned very early on how not to make white people feel their whiteness so as to avoid white backlash (p. 247). In his subsequent remarks at an impromptu White House press conference on July 24, 2009, the President once again demonstrated his mastery of appeasing white anxieties for political gain. Unfortunately, his effort to tamp down racial tensions generated from his earlier remarks came at the expense of those at the bottom who are most vulnerable to aggressive policing.

To state that Black people are sensitive to racial issues because of a history of past wrongs without acknowledging that we have legitimate concerns about the present state of racial inequality in this country relegated such concerns to the category of Black paranoia. While he maintained that Gates was wrongfully arrested, Obama also stated that both Gates and Crowley, the arresting officer, no doubt overreacted. Then Obama provided a possible explanation for Gates’s alleged over-the-top behavior. He attributed it to a misunderstanding between Blacks and officers which often happens during law enforcement encounters with communities of color (though Ware Street where Gates resides can hardly be defined as a minority community).

He never provided an explanation for why Crowley may have overacted. But what was most astonishing was that Obama invited the arresting officer along with Gates to the White House for a beer and conversation as though such a gesture were a panacea for police misconduct.

My first reaction was, please excuse the acronym, “WTF?” So the teachable moment that Obama talked about in his revised comments is that the dilemma of over-aggressive policing can be solved by a bottle of beer, a slap on the back and a good laugh about it all. That strategy might indeed work for Gates, a renowned Harvard Scholar, but what about the rest of us? What about those who do not have the name recognition to have their story make the news cycle? Who do not have the connections to get the charges dropped? Who do not have a personal friendship with the president who will speak out on their behalf? If Obama went too far in his initial remarks by saying that Cambridge police “acted stupidly,” he certainly went way too far in his later remarks to diffuse the controversy.

His acknowledgment that he should have calibrated his earlier remarks more carefully so as not to appear to disparage the police department was a sufficient attempt to silence his critics. But engaging in reductionist reasoning regarding the intersection of race and law enforcement and then offering to have a beer with the arresting officer, whom he never identified in his remarks, all in the name of taking the high road, goes a bit too far. This merely trivializes police misconduct which far too often results in the false incarceration, physical injury and death of countless people of color in this country.

I understand that Obama, as the first African American to assume the presidency, has to walk a racial tight rope, a burden no other American president has had to bear. But as an African American woman who cried the night he was elected and cried the day he was inaugurated, I feel a deep sense of betrayal. It is the same sense of betrayal I felt when I heard and read his comments regarding Katrina. Yes, he has to be the president for all the people; but, this should not come at the expense of people of color. African Americans are deeply shaken by Gates’s arrest. As a wife, mother, sister, aunt, cousin, daughter and friend of Black men, my anxiety for them has now increased tenfold. And should they fall into the hands of an officer who refuses to disengage from a situation even after it has been established that no crime is in progress or has been committed, they undoubtedly will not be as lucky as Gates.

arica_coleman.jpgObama asserted that we should all step back and realize that Professor Gates and Officer Crowley are two decent people. Fine. But perhaps we should also step back and realize that our collective reaction to this event clearly demonstrates that the idea that the election of a Black president is evident that America has moved beyond race is far too premature. As Gates pointedly stated in his most recent interview, and I concur, “I thought the whole idea that America was post-racial and post-black was laughable from the beginning. . . But the only black people who truly live in a post-racial world in America all live in a very nice house on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Indeed. I guess the rest of us at the bottom will have to fend for ourselves.

By Arica L. Coleman

Ms. Coleman is Assistant Professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware.

Republished with permission from the History News Network where it first appeared.


  1. says

    Dear Ms. Colman,

    After reading your perspectives I understand your sense of disillusionment with President Obama.

    I would have to state outright that I am not one of the African Americans whom as you state are “…deeply shaken by Gates arrest.” That statement is wrongfully inclusive as if we are (and remain forever) a monolith of thought and action.
    You know that is not true.

    I agree with the President that class had a lot to do with the disasterous inaction by government with the Katrina victims. Katrina showed the world that the majority of victims, who were Black, were demonstrably poor and unable or unwilling to leave what they had of a life or a home. Katrina also showed the world how America treats it’s poor. The poor Blacks of New Orleans were the poster people of America’s shameful treatment. But, not only Blacks. Hispanics, whites and other economically disenfranchised groups were represented yet not shown forging for food and water, or as the media portrayed them “looting.”

    I will never forget the sick feeling I had in my stomach watching the news and hearing the media people (particularly focusing the camera lens on Black people) searching for food as looters and criminals. Yet, poor whites were part of that matrix as well, even though not evidenced by the camera. I felt ashamed. I could not believe that this was my country.

    I would posit that we have a new paradigm for identifying perhaps the “untouchables” in our society. The “untouchables being poor whites, hispanics, essentially all people of color at or below the poverty line.

    The distinction being made (race and class) is subtle, at least to those of us focused on “race.”
    Some Blacks have been and remain accustomed to defining events like Katrina and recently the Gates fiasco predominantly within the realm of race without entertainng other extraneous factors.
    That is natural considering the history of Black people in the United States.

    Regardless of the “Real Men of Genius” moment at the white house, we are engaged in a teachable moment. We are talking. In this article even, we hopefully agree to disagree on certain points.

    I too am a Black mother of a young son. To tell you the truth I experience daily overwhelming joy coupled with overarching fear. First, when I discovered the sex of my child before his birth. And now, in knowing how some in society may treat him in his teen years and evolving manhood, as a “menace to society.”
    I have even considered leaving this country to raise my son elsewhere.

    All of this is to say that “I feel you.” Yet, I cannot ride with you continually on the coattails of ‘it is absolutely about race argument.’
    Perhaps we as Blacks will experience double jeopardy in being successful thereby generating jealously; and being Black thereby invoking fear and hatred.

    Electing a president, even a Black President does not and cannot usher in a “post-racial America.” That is an idiotic statement for this time and place in history.
    Truthfully, some older (and some young) generations with their poisonous thoughts, ideas, and perspectives will simply have to … die off first.

    My anxiety relative to police misconduct has always been tenfold! The shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City; the Boston police rustling up Black men with the faked car jacking story by Charles Stuart; here in Cleveland the police shot a young Black man hiding in a closet; and at times it seems open season nationally. My father who grew up in the Jim Crow south tells me things that happened to him, incidents that he witnessed that sicken me and make me weep. What about Emmett Till?

    My outrage is ever present. Yet, my intellect tells me that now, things are more than what they appear to be. Simply put, and however hard to believe, things are not just black and white anymore. There is gray to entertain.

    So, I do not feel the same monolithic sense of betrayal. I see a President attempting to be a President of all people. And not just for political gain.

    Madam, we are talking about this online. We are having a discourse. Many people of color are connected online and talk, and read.
    Many of us doing so, are considered the fortunate middle class.

    Race is still part of the picture, and will forever be. That is the human condition and a condition of being human. The increasing pervasive dynamic is class and the economics of class in this American society. Social class has no race requirements other than educational and monetary markers. Obama intrinsically knows this.

    Adrienne Zurub
    .-= Adrienne Zurub´s last blog ..What Tradition in my life is most important to me? =-.

  2. Pete Daggett says

    Ms Coleman, have you ever heard of Cookes Constant or Confirmation Bias? I get the distinct impression from your article that there is nothing that the President can do that you couldn’t find a way to second guess.

    I voted for Barack Obama… I am not pleased with every move he makes but I do believe that he is doing what he honestly feels he must do and I also believe, that he is clearly focused on healing this country and not trying in vain to live up to your expectations.

  3. frank says

    Very well written. I wonder how different his actions seem when you consider him as an “american african”, who does not have the history of slavery or jim crow in his family line? surely michelle must have brought that into his world view, but he does not have a real history with the reality of america’s past transgressions against blacks. I hope this does not sound to insensitive or ignorant (I am of mixed caucasian/asian decent).

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