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Obama's comments stir passions on race


Video by Regane RANUCCI

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2009-07-25

Barack Obama's remarks on the arrest of an African-American scholar have sparked controversy stemming from an uncharacteristically direct take on race from a politician who has long sought to transcend such divisive issues.

Healthcare was the word of the day at US President Barack Obama's press conference on Wednesday, but it's not what has people talking two days later.


Instead, commentators of all political stripes are still debating Obama's comments about the arrest of prominent African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates in his Cambridge, Massachussetts, home last weekend.


Answering a reporter’s question, Obama stated that police who mistook Gates for a burglar had “acted stupidly.” The president then condemned “a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately,” adding that “race remains a factor in this society.”


It was a rare instance of a president speaking out on a local law-enforcement conflict. But the controversy following the remarks stemmed more from what was seen as an uncharacteristically direct take on race in America from a politician who has long sought to transcend such divisive issues.


Obama enters the debate 


The incident that set off the firestorm occurred when Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was apparently trying to force open the jammed front door of his Boston-area home. A neighbour called the police, thinking the house was being robbed.


Gates alleges he was subsequently the victim of a racist arrest, but the police sergeant, who is white, says he handcuffed the scholar because he became abusive. Gates was held in custody for four hours, but the initial disorderly conduct charges were dropped Tuesday.


When asked at his press conference what the episode implied about race in America, Obama said that though he didn’t know the details, “Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof they were in their own home.”


A ‘post-racial’ politician?


Obama’s victory in November was seen by many as the triumph of a “post-racial” candidate in a country well on its way to recovering from historical wounds of slavery, segregation and discrimination. Indeed, Obama had been careful not to pigeonhole himself as a “black candidate” during the campaign, drawing diverse throngs to uplifting speeches which emphasised unity between Americans.


Obama nevertheless could not prevent his skin colour from periodically coming into focus. Several African-American political pillars, like Jesse Jackson, initially criticised Obama for what they saw as his distancing himself from the black community. And Obama was later forced to defuse explosive racial politics in a major speech addressing the controversy over his close friend Jeremiah Wright’s fiery anti-white sermons.


But the president’s comments on the Gates arrest amounted to a surprisingly off-the-cuff foray into racial politics within the widely watched setting of a White House news conference. Obama appeared exasperated by what happened to Gates, a personal friend, and he joked that he himself would “get shot” if caught forcing open the White House door. The quip was a nod at the intense security surrounding the White House, but also seemed to play on the almost surreal novelty of an African-American living there, momentarily bringing Obama’s skin colour back into the spotlight.


A flurry of reactions


Though White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried yesterday to neutralise the president’s comments, saying they were aimed more at the situation than the police officer, reactions have continued to pour in from across the political spectrum. Senate Republicans are reportedly planning a Web ad slamming the president for criticizing the police without knowing all the facts.


Radio waves and blogs are aflame with similar outrage, as many conservatives bristled at Obama’s suggestion that racism was behind Gates’ arrest. One right-wing blogger claimed Obama’s words put him in a class of  “divisive, race obsessed, elitist intellectuals," while Republican radio host Rush Limbaugh accused Obama of having “a chip on his shoulder.”


Others are leaping to Obama’s defense. Prominent left-wing blogger Rich Boatti said: "To criticise Obama for calling a spade a spade is another pathetic attempt by today's Republican party to rile up their base of Southern white males."


Zachary Miller, chair of the Minority Caucus of Democrats Abroad in France, also saw manipulation in the right-wing ire, noting that “the usual suspects are trying to use the president’s comments to wedge a wall between President Obama and white America.”


Miller pointed to a segment of Obama’s answer, overlooked in the heated back-and-forth, in which the president affirmed that the Gates situation “doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that has been made.” Then, adding a hint of realism to his typically optimistic assessment: “And yet, the fact of the matter is that this still haunts us."

Date created : 2009-07-24