The beer summit.
Obama said "I will disappoint you. I will make mistakes." And now he has, according to the popular consensus, in condemning the improper arrest of a close friend. So today Obama will host the families of a Cambridge, Mass. cop and an esteemed Harvard professor of English literature at the White House, and try to bring "some measure of closure" to a controversy over appropriate presidential conduct.
Obama was correct in saying the Cambridge police officer acted "stupidly" in arresting a black man for talking back to him. Yet the very next day Obama apologized for that observation, and invited the cop and the prof to the Executive Mansion for a beer.
As a white man, I've had enough experience with power-happy peace officers to know the only safe response to abuse of power by someone with a gun, taser, billy club and knowledge of 50 infractions with which he or she can arrest you is to shut up and take it.
For a person of colour, multiply that by 100.
Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., PhD, Harvard professor, recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and 16 honourary degrees, according to my Who's Who in America in which Sgt. James Crowley's name does not appear, should have kept his mouth shut. Just like that black film director did in Crash while his white wife was being body searched at length by a white cop intent on humiliating them both, because they drove a luxury SUV and he lived in a hovel.
Am I being elitist? You bet. Gates, also the author of five books and one of the world's leading experts on African and African-American culture, has worked extraordinarily hard to be treated with respect in the self-styled meritocracy that is the U.S. Sgt. Crowley has worked hard, but not enough, apparently, to have a sound grasp on dealing with delicate situations - which is his job, after all. And if a distinguished, world-renowned academic who is a close friend of the U.S. president can get pushed around in his own home, what chance of respect do I have? There's always a populist argument that we all should be treated equal. Actually, that's a value I live by. But when one of the most accomplished among us is subjected to arbitrary unfairness, you can imagine the fears I have for myself and those like me not equipped with deadly force.
We're told Obama should have kept silent when asked about the night-before arrest of Gates at a press conference on health care, should have let his friend go without his emotional support - maybe even be cast aside, as Rev. Wright was cast aside. Instead, this exceedingly careful speaker, who before last Nov. 4 routinely had trouble hailing a cab because of his skin colour, revealed his own anger. And in that moment the injustice of what King called "unearned suffering" found a voice in a very high place. And as Obama would have expected, judging from the occasional cynicism in his memoir, Americans are talking not of continued racial profiling - an everyday discomfort sometimes manifesting itself in evil acts - but about whether the U.S. president conducted himself appropriately in letting slip centuries of understandable rage.
Of Sgt. Crowley's credibility there is room for doubt, though he has been repeatedly lauded as an expert in racial profiling. In which case he might have thought more carefully about arresting a travel-fatigued black man for disorderly conduct - which is to say, for daring complain to the cop about an unwarranted intrusion into his home after the cop had established that this indeed was Gates's home. By Crowley's account, the 911 caller told him about "two black men with backpacks" she had seen trying to break into Gates' house. But by the 911 caller's account, backed up by a recording of her call, she said nothing of race. Her only words to Crowley were "I was the 911 caller." Crowley told her to stay put, and that was the extent of their exchange.
So one of Cambridge, Mass.'s finest, a fabulist to go by the police report he filed, has won himself an audience with the U.S. president, unrepentent still about his own conduct. A perverse outcome, to be sure. Would another president have acted with such goodwill and dignity? Would you?
I found instructive this Canadian commenter's experience, related in today's Globe:
"i'm white by race, with brown skin and beautiful kinky hair. I have been profiled as nonwhite my entire life by police, security at the airport or US Canadian border after the attacks of 911, etc. It isn't fun. It is humiliating, frustrating, angering, dehumanizing - period. Try it, you won't like it. Profiling is real, and disgusting. I was told for almost 2 years that I was "randomly selected" to be double checked at airports when flying to US or Canada every time I flew. I couldn't help but notice that ALL the guys 'randomly checked' were dark skinned. It sucks. Given my experience, give some slack to ANY black man in the US or elsewhere who gets upset or enraged at even the smell of profiling. If you are white, imagine living with it when you are just going about your business. You won't like it, believe me. As to the officer, he should know better since he is an expert in the field. He should have gotten the ID from Gates, said thank you, and walked out the door, thankful that he had helped to avoid a nasty situation that could, and often does, turn violent. He should not have used his power of the badge to get at the man in his own home. He knows about profiling and its effect, and should have put that knowledge to use."
And here's Gates, post-beer summit:
"Let me say that I thank God that I live in a country in which police officers put their lives at risk to protect us every day, and, more than ever, I’ve come to understand and appreciate their daily sacrifices on our behalf... And thank God that we have a President who can rise above the fray, bridge age-old differences and transform events such as this into a moment in the evolution of our society’s attitudes about race and difference...
"The national conversation over the past week about my arrest has been rowdy, not to say tumultuous and unruly. But we’ve learned that we can have our differences without demonizing one another. There’s reason to hope that many people have emerged with greater sympathy for the daily perils of policing, on the one hand, and for the genuine fears about racial profiling, on the other hand."
On the South Lawn at the White House, Vice-President Joe Biden, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Sgt. James Crowley and President Barack Obama exchange views, July 23, 2009.
For the purposes of this blog, the inception of the Great Recession in the U.S., the epicentre of the crisis, is taken as the start date for the global slump. The U.S. has been in recession since December 2007.