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July 30th, 2009
09:20 AM ET

White House can't duck race

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/07/30/gates.arrest.recap/art.crowley.obama.gates.afp.gi.jpg caption="President Obama has invited police Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for beer."]

Drew Westen
Special to CNN

Unless one of the three men assembled tonight at the White House for a beer spoils the moment by asking for Chardonnay, it seems likely that the altercation between the professor and the police officer will blow over, and the media will get back to reporting on serious stories, like Michael Jackson's doctor.

The president hopes this will be a "teachable moment," and perhaps the man who gave the most extraordinary speech on race since "I Have a Dream" in March 2008 in Philadelphia will do the same tonight. But it is not yet clear what lessons he wants the country to learn - or what lessons the White House itself has taken away.

The president's preference on social issues has generally been to avoid them. He talked about race in the 2008 election only when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy threatened to derail his candidacy. But his speech in Philadelphia should have taught an important lesson not only to Obama and his advisers but to the country: that speaking the truth, as uncomfortable as that might be, is far more effective in promoting civility and mutual understanding than pretending the elephant isn't in the room.

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Filed under: Race in America
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Aimee

    I meant "There" not Their." I swear I'm educated!

    And to Vern; holistic approach is the best approach.

    July 30, 2009 at 2:54 pm |
  2. Vern Beard

    I have a very different perspective on the President's perceived views on social issues and race. The President, it appears to me, realizes that by always pointing out the differences in individuals and cultures the only thing to be accomplished is to keep the divide going. He believes in treating issues, people and situations with a holistic, inclusive approach, focusing on what we have in common and trying to establish common goals and initiatives.
    Even though he was correct (in his constitutional lawyer role) in pointing out that what Officer Crowley did in arresting Gates as "stupidity", he had to walk that back in his role as President of all the people. Because he is the leader of a country which still has issues with race, class, and social justice, he needed not to weigh in on the Gates/Crowley discussion but since he did, he now needs to use the moment to try and bridge the divide.

    Our President is extremely knowledgeable about social issues but does not improperly use his position as a platform for pushing social initiatives of one group or another. I like his inclusive approach of dealing with all issues as issues which pertain to all Americans. I remember how so many African Americans began to get angry with him because they didnt see him as including issues specific to the African American community. Our President was wisely moving in a new direction which all Americans should appreciate. A direction which addressed all issues and problems with a focus on inclusiveness for all Americans.

    I wish that those in the media who continue to point out the President's comments pertaining to Gates/Crowley would include in their reports that the President probably responded as a law professor talking to students who understood the law. Call it a momentary lapse in role identification or some such animal. Fact is he regrets having weighed in on the discussion from that perspective even though Crowley and others in the justice system will probably at some point in the future refer to the arrest as an erroneous or even "stupid" decision.

    July 30, 2009 at 2:29 pm |
  3. Aimee

    The reason this story is news, Drew, is due to the fact this kind of "teachable moment" would not be happening if the current President wasn't a *Black American. There were no teachable moments in The White House with Gearge Sr. when Rodney King got a total beat down, and that was on video. And I recall many long hours devoted to Anna Nicole's death and autopsy AND custody battle viewed on CNN. Micheal Jackson is just season two. It's the pedagogy of the American Proletariat and, I'm sorry to say, you promulgate it.

    *I want to add I used Black instead of African American. Their are Haitian Americans, Jamaican Americans, etc. that are phenotypically similiar to what we Americans call African Americans. Egypt is in Africa and they have a more Middle Eastern look. It's just geography. We only focus on race because we can see it.

    July 30, 2009 at 1:28 pm |
  4. Walter Jones

    Gates is now a "hero" and the cop suffers for doing his job. Would two white people get an invite to the White House for the same thing?
    Are we suppose to be afraid to describe what a person looks like? How then can we report anything? We are Michael Jackson to death. They are all about money. Now this. Is Obama using his power in the wrong way or proving a point about the Gates case? If the cop is fired that would be terrible!!! If a break in really happened to Gates, and no one showed up, then would he complain about that too??? Or sue? Sad.

    July 30, 2009 at 1:13 pm |
  5. Walter Jones

    We have been Michael Jackson to death. Now Gates is invited to the White House with the cop for a beer? This is a power thing that Obama is doing. If this were two white men, one a cop and the other a supposed criminal, will they get a White House invite too? Now people will be afraid to report anything. Or, God forbid, describe what a person looks like. That lady who called 911 did her duty, but Gates is not a "hero"??? Jacksons is all about money, duh, and Obama is pushing his power to prove a point. Now the cop will lose his job? Terrible!

    July 30, 2009 at 1:06 pm |
  6. Bernadette Dupuy

    I waited to see the clip of Elvis' docto to speak out on you show last night on 7-29-09 but was not shown. I looked it up on your website but did not see it.

    July 30, 2009 at 12:40 pm |
  7. Michael C. McHugh

    Obama's remark about the cop being "stupid" struck me as honest, genuine emotion from a man who often seems like Mr. Cool, who got where he is by absolutely iron self-control and self-discipline. Maybe the remark cost him some votes, but at least it was "real".

    I can understand why he wants to downplay talk about race and cultural issues, no matter that the Republicans have been playing the Race Card constantly ever since he was nominated.

    If Obama wants to use this event for anything but a photo op, then perhaps he could make some remarks along the lines of "Where do we go from here, chaos or community?" Let him offer a vision for the country that is better than what Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan and the Southern Republican leaders are selling every day.

    July 30, 2009 at 12:29 pm |