By Renford Reese, Ph.D
It was a masterful stroke by President Obama to invite Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police officer, James Crowley to the White House for a reconciliation session. The president made a symbolic statement to all Americans about the power of reconciliation. Obama’s meeting with Gates and Crowley sent a message to those divided by race in our schools, on our streets, and in the workplace that we should confront our racial differences head-on and in a diplomatic way.
This meeting was also symbolic of the president’s acknowledgement of his own mismanagement of the fallout of this incident. For there to be any substantive process of reconciliation all parties involved must be opened to admit their mistakes.
With diplomacy, human relations, and etiquette absent in the arrest of Gates, the recalcitrant issue of race forced us to take sides and play the blame game once again. For a while, it looked like the president would be the biggest casualty of this racially charged incident.
President Obama’s statement that the police officer that arrested Gates in his own home “acted stupidly” ignited a firestorm. This characterization infuriated police officers and others nationwide. After the president’s statements, I tuned in to the Rush Limbaugh and the Sean Hannity radio shows for consecutive days. Each talk show host had Obama’s statement at the center of their show’s dialogue. Their callers seemed unusually intense about their condemnation of the president because of his stance regarding this incident.
President Obama has been Houdini-like in the way he has avoided being “labeled” as a black president. He has been skillful in the way he has played the race card—he has not played it all. Even in our current debates, people seem to critique him according to his policy stances rather than on his race. By the president openly taking sides with his friend Gates in this incident, the president finally, if only briefly, gave cynics a reason to blatantly color him black.
None of Obama’s predecessors had to be self-conscious of their race. They did not have to tap dance around issues of their whiteness. Walking the racial tightrope has been, and will continue to be, one of Obama’s biggest challenges. In better economic times, Obama’s statement might not have had legs—people would have been more likely to quickly forgive him for the harshness of his words. However, in these tough times, people are looking for scapegoats. Conservatives saw the president’s declining poll numbers and this racial wedge issue as an opportunity to corner him. With this White House meeting, the president clipped the story’s legs and has outmaneuvered his boisterous opposition once again.
When Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s revelations inflamed racial tensions and seem to color Obama as a “black” presidential candidate the president arose to the occasion with a brilliantly eloquent and insightful lecture about race relations in America. Months later he was taking “The Oath of Office.”
By convening this White House meeting, being contrite about his mismanagement of this incident and being stern about the problem of racial profiling in this country, Obama put this issue on the public agenda and put this unfortunate incident behind us. Those who dare to continue to play sound bites of the president’s stinging words for political gain and for radio show ratings will now be blameworthy of stoking the fire of a blaze that has burned out. This tactic backfired with the ad nauseam replays of Reverend Wright’s fiery words. By making the Gates-Crowley incident old news, the president has taken away a trump card from incendiary race card players like Rush Limbaugh and his protégés.
President Obama has once again shown us the sensitivity, forthrightness, and leadership that we desire in all of our leaders. He has given us a symbolic push to bridge our racial divides. The overarching message of the Gates-Crowley White House meeting is that we can agree to disagree—as long as we communicate and commit to reconciling our differences.
–Renford Reese, Ph.D., is a professor in the political science department and director of the Colorful Flags program at Cal Poly Pomona. He is the author of Prison Race (2006), Leadership in the LAPD: Walking the Tightrope (2005), and the widely discussed American Paradox: Young Black Men (2004). See his work at: http://www.RenfordReese.com