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

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

When the presidential election campaign began two and a half years ago I was a Hillary Clinton supporter. I supported Clinton not so much because she was a woman or that I believed she was the best candidate. I supported her because I believed the hype that she had the democratic nomination in the bag. I always believed The United States of America would have a white female president before it had a Black male president (a Black female president may have to wait until the next century) and so I didn’t want to waste my vote. But there was another reason I initially supported Clinton over Obama which goes to the heart of my essay and can be summed up in two words: race matters.

My reluctance to support Obama stemmed from what I believed was the Senator’s reluctance to honestly confront issues of race. I was as excited as many about Obama after witnessing his stirring keynote address at the 2004 DNC convention. I believed a run for the presidency might not be a far-fetched idea. But I later became disillusioned during the Katrina crisis as Obama, in an effort to diffuse racial tensions, stated that the shortcomings in response to that horrific event were a matter of class. Race had nothing to do with it.

I believed Obama’s response to be cowardly and dishonest. Anyone who knows the history of New Orleans knows that race cannot be separated from the events before and after Katrina. It was astonishing to watch a Black politician engage in such blatant denial for his own political gain. Black candidates and elected officials seeking state and national office know they must scale the racial mountain to assure their white constituents that they are not in it to advance the “Black cause.” In doing so, Black politicians all too often campaign or govern at the expense of their black constituents, downplaying racially charged issues so as not to offend whites. But Obama well knows that race and class are not mutually exclusive and are often intersecting factors. Racial inequality is real and often has life and death consequences as we witnessed during and after Katrina. For those of us at the bottom of the racial food chain, achieving racial equality is just as important as health care, the economy, and education as race determines access and quality of access. Obama’s willfulness to obscure these complexities in the midst of such human suffering gave me pause. I honestly did not think I could support a candidate who, to use the words of Kanye West, “doesn’t care about Black people.” Despite my misgivings, however, I eventually came around when some of my colleagues, namely a white middle aged female friend, urged me to listen to Obama’s stump speeches. After listening to both Clinton and Obama, I was convinced that Obama was the better candidate. By December 2007 I was well on my way to becoming an Obama supporter and took the full leap, as many others did, after the Iowa Caucus.

While Obama tried his best throughout the primary election to appear race neutral, fanning the flames of unrest whenever racial animosities attempted to hijack his campaign, the Jeremiah Wright controversy brought race front and center. Hence, Obama was faced with having to do something he had long tried to avoid: address the issue of race head on. Like many Obama supporters, I was nervous about what he would say in the “race” speech he reluctantly delivered in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008 . Not only was I nervous because of what this could mean to him politically, I was also nervous because of what this could mean for Blacks all over the country. In addition to his Katrina comments, I had read Obama’s The Audacity of Hope (2006) and frankly was unimpressed with his chapter on race. While he addresses issues of institutional and structural racism, unfortunately, the chapter quickly descends into a discourse on so called Black pathology. His memoir Dreams From My Father (1995) dealt far more honestly with the issue of race. But that was written before he became a politician. And so I sat nervously in front of the TV waiting for the speech. Would Obama yield to the status quo and simply say what was necessary to appease white anxieties? Or would he truly give voice to the reality of continued racial inequality in America? The speech was indeed as anchor Chris Matthews stated, “brilliant . . . one worthy of Lincoln.” Obama, nevertheless, managed to let whiteness off the hook by, in the words of novelist Adam Mansback, “ fudg[ing] the difference between institutional racism and white bitterness.” Despite this shortcoming, I felt Obama had done what was necessary to keep his campaign afloat while at the same time not throwing Blacks under the bus.

My disillusionment with Obama would return again as his visits to various Black churches during the general election yielded didactic speeches of personal responsibility, a message many felt condescending and only designed to garner white votes (i.e. the controversial Father’s Day speech). As appalled as I was at Rev. Jesse Jackson’s remarks that such condescension made him want “to cut his [Obama’s] nuts off,” I could identify with Rev. Jackson’s frustration. Why is it that Obama and others resort to scolding Black parents for not doing their part to insure their children’s success, but never acknowledge that there are Black parents who are actively engaged in their children’s lives? Yes, there are fathers who need to “step up,” but what about acknowledging those who have indeed steeped up and are taking care of their parental responsibilities? Such people are not an exception, but rather the rule in Black communities all over the country.

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. Obama 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.

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    arica coleman - 8/4/2009

    Thanks for your post. Time does not permit me to respond to it entirely. I will only say that class in this country is structured and shaped by racial politics. You cannot understand class in this country without understanding racism and how it functions in this capitalist society. Class struggle, as scholar bell hooks notes, is "inextricably bound to the struggle to end racism." Yes, the folks in New Orleans were poor and race played a role in that. The problem is seeing this through the either or fallacy. Some say it was race, some say it was class. No! It was both.

    arica coleman - 8/4/2009

    Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate you taking the time to read the article. I will not attempt to respond to your comments directly. I will only say that for those of us who do not live on the privilege side of racism, racism is a matter of life and death. It is not always safe to be a person of color in this country. African Americans know this all too well. Having Obama as president has not change that. If you are interested please read Bob Herbert's NYT op-ed "Anger Has Its Place." You can find it here. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/01/opinion/01herbert.html?ref=global

    arica coleman - 8/4/2009

    This is not a mere indulgence in racial politics. Race and ethnic disparities in health care have been documented since the 1950s. There is plenty of research out there to support my position. I will be happy to consider any research you can present which contradicts my statement.

    Peter Kurilecz - 8/1/2009

    "For those of us at the bottom of the racial food chain, achieving racial equality is just as important as health care, the economy, and education as race determines access and quality of access."

    for an assistant professor to even think such a thought as the one above shows just how ridiculous racial politics have become.

    Adrienne Zurub - 7/31/2009

    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

    Ruel J. Eskelsen - 7/31/2009

    I believe Obama has been about as good as a human could be on talking straight about racism and the continuing problems between the dark and light skinned peoples.

    I'm getting weary of pontificating talking (or blogging or net-writing) heads, like Prof. Coleman in this piece, who can't seem to give Obama the benefit of trying to heal up this divide in how these different groups see the world regarding how we deal with entrenched poverty that has a racial dimension.

    I see Obama's efforts as an honest attempt to return to the dream of judging a person by "the content of their character" and hopefully make some progress in becoming a human family and not simply a collection of ethnic caucuses, which from my point of view seem to see justice only being served through contentious lobbying for their respective groups.

    John D. Beatty - 7/31/2009

    Why this obsession with skin color? It has nothing to do with anything other than perceptions.

    Get over yourselves.

    james joseph butler - 7/30/2009

    Prof. Coleman your piece is illustrative of what colors so much of the racial dialectic. Why do you see the President's beer get together as an apology and a retreat? Why can't we take Pres. Obama at his word that the invitation to the "two good men" is simply an opportunity for the two men to understand one another better and in doing so recognize the human before the racial category. Much of Prof. Gates recent acclaim revolves around his theme that none of us are pure breeds that we're all mutts as the President puts it and that what truly unites us is our flawed humanity. The same vulnerablity that makes us think the skin is more important than the person.

    Carl R. Weinberg - 7/30/2009

    Your DNA does not determine your politics. Malcolm X had a "biracial" mother--he was light-skinned--and he became a revolutionary. He would have had some choice words for the cops and for Obama in this situation. I wasn't exactly surprised at Obama's cowardly retreat--but I agree with Arica Coleman that his invitation to the White House will make things harder for all African Americans in confrontations with the institutional racism that is still alive and well in America. Thanks for the article.

    lil k. ramge - 7/29/2009

    Obama is biracial. That is the reason he does not, for the most part, speak like a black man. He is biracial. Whatever that means to him is very personal and has more to do with his DNA than anything else. Whoever he is he is not the same as either a white man or a black man. He is a biracial man. He intellectualizes the struggles of Blacks because he is not innately at home in the struggle. He is thrilled that he has been claimed as one of their own... but that does not mean he is one. If he was he would understand just why Jackson wants to ... when he talks down to an audience that he is not at home with.