What has America learned from Obama's 'teachable moment'?

The three men who will picnic at the White House Thursday have all made mistakes – and shown that talking about race is still complicated.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP/File
In this July 24 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks about Cambridge Massachusetts Police Sgt. James Crowley and Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the White House in Washington.

If President Obama would like the confrontation between a black Harvard professor and a white police sergeant to be a “teachable moment,” what, then, is the lesson to be drawn from a few minutes of ill temper in Cambridge, Mass., on July 16?

There are as many opinions as blogs, as many commentaries as water coolers, yet one theme recurs, and as Mr. Obama picnics with the two men Thursday night, it is one he might be inclined to mention. He has before.

In his unscheduled press conference last Friday, he said that Mr. Crowley’s decision to arrest Mr. Gates was an “overreaction,” but then added: “Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, like the president a friend of Gates, agreed with Obama’s assessment. "I think [Gates] should have reflected on whether or not this was the time to make that big a deal," Mr. Powell said an interview with CNN. And of Crowley, he added: "I would have thought at that point some adult supervision would have stepped in and said, 'Okay, look, it is his house. Come on, let's not take this any further. Take the handcuffs off.'"

Yet the same charge could be leveled at Obama himself, who said the Cambridge Police Department acted “stupidly,” even while admitting he didn’t know all the facts of the case. He later admitted that it had been a poor choice of words.

Comedian Bill Cosby, a frequent commentator on African-American society, said in an interview with a Boston radio station that he “was shocked to hear the president making this kind of statement.”

The spokeswoman for the woman who called 911, Lucia Whalen, made the same point when she introduced her client Wednesday: In the whole affair, Ms. Whalen was “the one person who didn’t overact.”

Yet each, perhaps, had provocation for acting as they did.

Gates was reacting to the historical tendency for law enforcement to racially profile minorities – to suspect them of wrongdoing simply because of their skin color. Gates might justifiably have thought there was something strange about arresting a prominent Harvard scholar on his own front porch.

Crowley might wonder why the routine matter of asking for ID should brand him as a racist. That area of Cambridge had seen a spike in daytime break-ins recently. Was it too much to ask for a little civility and cooperation for an officer doing his job?

And Obama, after all, was just trying to make the point – as he explained more fully later – that it was a bit stupid to haul someone off in handcuffs once it had been clearly established that he was in his own home. What’s more, Obama added, an elderly professor who uses a cane was hardly likely to touch off a riot in suburban Cambridge, no matter how unruly he was.

To some, this episode means there's still much to learn about race in America. “In this case it turned out that it could be just a confrontation between two men who both lost their temper,” Dorothy Miller, chair of the Race and Reconciliation Dialogue Group at the Saint Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh told the Associated Press. “So I think we can learn that we still have much to learn about racism."

Yet Obama might disagree. For the president who takes professorial pride in attempting to make the complex comprehensible, the clearest lesson of all might be that when it comes to matters of race, there’s very little that’s black and white.

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