Here’s a lesson for future James D. Watsons:
When You Tell the Truth … Don’t Apologize
Defeated by Cambridge Police Officer James Crowley’s stubborn courage, Obama made an unscheduled appearance at a White House press briefing today to say:
I wanted to address you guys directly because over the last day and a half obviously there’s been all sorts of controversy around the incident that happened in Cambridge with Professor Gates and the police department there.
I actually just had a conversation with Sergeant Jim Crowley, the officer involved. And I have to tell you that as I said yesterday, my impression of him was that he was a outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation — and I told him that.
And because this has been ratcheting up — and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up — I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically — and I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sergeant Crowley.
I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well. My sense is you’ve got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved.
The fact that it has garnered so much attention I think is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America. So to the extent that my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate.
What I’d like to do then I make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts — but as I said at the press conference, be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African Americans are sensitive to these issues. And even when you’ve got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding.
My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what’s called a “teachable moment,” where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity. Lord knows we need it right now — because over the last two days as we’ve discussed this issue, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care. (Laughter.)
I will not use this time to spend more words on health care, although I can’t guarantee that that will be true next week. I just wanted to emphasize that — one last point I guess I would make. There are some who say that as President I shouldn’t have stepped into this at all because it’s a local issue. I have to tell you that that part of it I disagree with. The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society. Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive — as opposed to negative — understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio.
So at the end of the conversation there was a discussion about — my conversation with Sergeant Crowley, there was discussion about he and I and Professor Gates having a beer here in the White House. We don’t know if that’s scheduled yet — (laughter) — but we may put that together.
He also did say he wanted to find out if there was a way of getting the press off his lawn. (Laughter.) I informed him that I can’t get the press off my lawn. (Laughter.) He pointed out that my lawn is bigger than his lawn. (Laughter.) But if anybody has any connections to the Boston press, as well as national press, Sergeant Crowley would be happy for you to stop trampling his grass.
All right. Thank you, guys.
Obviously, this isn’t much of a real apology, but the basic fact remains that the President’s racial prejudices just got stared down by the Policeman who had the facts on his side.
My guess is that one reason Obama backed down was because the police dispatch operators have tapes of much of the confrontation. They haven’t been released yet, but they would be interesting to hear.
Teachable moments? The first is that Obama’s comments at his news conference on the “stupidity” of the Cambridge Police Department were, despite all his lawyerly stipulations, a textbook example of racial prejudice in action. He had prejudged these specific events based on his deeply held views on the general racial situation in America.
As in Ricci, we see the value of civil servant unions in standing up to racialized politicians. Crowley’s cop union stood shoulder to shoulder with him and helped him face down the Governor and the President. Government employee unions are expensive, but they do have an interest in standing up for civil service rules in fighting the new racial spoils system perpetrated under the guise of “civil rights.”
Another lesson is that as the Establishment has ratcheted up Racism into the worst sin imaginable in the history of the world, it has not correspondingly ratcheted up the seriousness of the consequences of falsely accusing somebody of “racism.” It was clear from even Dr. Gates’s self-serving account that his accusations of racism against Officer Crowley were the product not of evidence but of his understandably tired, overexcited brain intersecting with his business interests as a prestige media race man. Crowley refused to buckle under to extraordinary pressure, going all the way up to the President, thus setting a new standard for how to respond to false charges.
It’s time to pressure Obama to publicly call on his friend Skip Gates to withdraw his charges of racism against Officer Crowley on the grounds that the epidemic of false charges of racism must be halted.
Now, that would be a Teachable Moment!
There are two distinguishable issues in this mess:
– The false accusation of racism by Professor Gates against Officer Crowley (which, in Obama’s usual lawyerly way was more or less endorsed, in so many words, on national television by President Obama). Gates’s prolonged attempt over the last week while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard to make money off his defamation of Officer Crowley by promoting his future television program about it, should, at minimum, lead to Gates’s public shaming.
– The question of whether Crowley over-reacted to Gates’ unhinged temper tantrum and false accusations of racism. As I’ve said, I sympathize with Gates’ frustrations. While traveling a couple of years ago, I was forced to stay up all night through airline incompetence (after four hours standing at an airport ticket counter, I finally fi
gured out that two airlines had merged and the desk agents, who were all from the acquired airline, didn’t know how to operate the computer system of the acquiring airline). Therefore, I came close to throwing a hissy fit of Gatesian proportions when I tried to go through the security checkpoint only to find out that the airline had now flagged my ticket for public interrogation in a glass box. I did manage, barely, to not step over any lines. If I ever do, I hope, for my own personal sake, that the cop I insult is more of a wishy-washy type than Officer Crowley.
Should “contempt of cop” be an arrestable offense? This appears to be a gray area in the law, and perhaps necessarily so. In theory, it would be nice if you could relentlessly scream insults at a cop in public under the First Amendment, but the Second Amendment gets in the way. There are a couple of hundred million guns in America, which means that cops feel they always have to stay in control of the situation psychologically, because, otherwise, the confrontation might escalate to the point where somebody winds up with a hole in him. (Usually, it’s not the cop but the enraged suspect who ends up in the morgue.) Moreover, letting one probably harmless maniac like Gates get away with abusing cops sets a dangerous precedents for the less harmless maniacs.
An interesting psychological point is that the same stubborn professionalism that helped make Officer Crowley a hard-ass toward Professor Gates has made him a heroic public citizen in his refusal to be browbeat by President Obama. He’s shown more spine than James Watson or Larry Summers.
By the way, I’d like to use this Teachable Moment to flog my reader’s guide to what the President considers the Teachable Moments in his own life: America’s Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama’s “Story of Race and Inheritance.”
It makes a great gift! (Well, your mileage may vary.)