The Monitor's View

Obama's 'teachable moment' on race

Whether the nation has learned from the Gates-Crowely confrontation is hard to judge, but the president was also a pupil in this case.

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President Obama hoped that out of the July 16 arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer would come a "teachable moment" – about better listening, about improving relations between minorities and law enforcement, about common ground.

It's hard to know how much has sunk in with Americans, but a whole lot of education has certainly gone on. Including of pupil Obama.

According to the Pew Research Center, a third of last week's news coverage focused on the story of Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s arrest for disorderly conduct at his residence by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police department. The sergeant had gone to the professor's place to investigate a reported forced entry (by Mr. Gates himself, as it turned out).

The saturation coverage has apparently prompted police departments around the country to look more closely at "racial profiling" – the trap of targeting suspects purely because of their race or ethnicity. This was Gates's vociferous complaint against Crowley (who trains police in how to avoid racial profiling and denies any racial motive in the arrest).

Cops have also talked about their difficult jobs, the importance of respect for law enforcement, and their role in de-escalating tense situations like the one involving Gates.

On talk shows, on the Internet, at the office, and at home, Americans have discussed whether Gates too quickly assumed racial bias and whether Crowley was too hasty to arrest him. They also discovered that the 911 caller who reported the possible break-in did not bring up race. When pressed by the dispatcher, she said she thought one of the suspects might be Hispanic.

Encouragingly, the two central figures in this summer's nonfiction drama indicate something instructive is emerging from their encounter. At their White House "beer summit" yesterday, they talked with each other about their families and their histories in Cambridge – in other words, they found common ground.

They also agreed to meet again to share their perspectives in a way that, according to Crowley, might move the country forward on issues related to their ordeal. Crowley said Gates could "enlighten" him, while Gates wrote on his website, theroot.com, of his greater appreciation for the "daily perils of policing."

And what of the pedagogic president? He facilitated the talk, yes, but his initial comments about Gates's arrest – that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" – forced him into the role of student. He spoke too soon, before Crowley's side of the story had come out, and as he later admitted, "I could have calibrated those words differently."

Calibrated is an interesting way of putting it, implying a careful and precise adjustment. Indeed, while Obama has spent the last two months generously referencing his race and biography overseas (where it has inspired many Muslims, Africans, and Europeans), he must be much more measured about it at home.

As someone who never intended to run as a "black candidate," and in a country with a long and painful racial history, he must walk a fine line between representing the interests of African-Americans and of all Americans.

He does best when he reminds the country that these interests are one and the same, as he did in his July 17 speech on the 100th anniversary of the NAACP – and as he did in his "race" speech in 2008. Improved education for blacks is right in and of itself, and it also means a more competitive America; higher employment for blacks improves their own security, and it also means a more productive America; fairer sentencing for blacks boosts their life prospects, and it means a more just America.

The problem with the "acting stupidly" comment was that it ignored the larger picture, the America picture. Obama understandably empathized with his friend on the alleged racial profiling but he judged before fully considering the circumstances and biography of the white officer.

Not surprisingly, 45 percent of white Americans disapproved of his handling of the incident, while only 22 percent approved, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center released yesterday, before Obama met with the two men.

Perhaps Obama's White House moment under the magnolia with Gates and Crowley can repair whatever political damage he may have suffered from this July hailstorm. It marks a return to his role as a uniter of blacks and whites, and puts him back on-topic with his agenda.

But this is surely not the last time Obama will tussle with race in his presidency. The professor in the Oval Office is learning as he goes. So is the nation.

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