Friday, July 31, 2009

The Accidental Triumvirate

The caller who alerted the Cambridge Police about a suspected break-in at the house of the African American scholar, Henry Louis Gates, could scarcely have known what can of worms she was about to open. Her innocent and well intentioned call subsequently touched off a fire-storm of racial controversy that sucked in the President of the United States who, like everyone else in the country, dared to comment on this age old topic of race in America. In the end, what could aptly be described as the proverbial "tempest in a teacup" ended up as a major public relations crisis for the President and reopened the slow to heal sore that is racial discord in America which pits blacks against whites and Republicans against Democratic liberal thinkers. In short order, the whole world was reminded again of what makes the United States of America a misnomer for a nation so divided and polarized about race.

In his initial comment on this sad episode, the President said - among other points he made - that if everything he had heard about the case was true, the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting a man who was rightly in his own home while on a call to investigate a call about a suspected burglary of the very same home. The hue and cry that ensued over the use of the word "stupid" in describing the action of the Cambridge Police and specifically Officer Crowley forced the President to back pedal from his initial comment and admit to choosing his words wrongly. This blogger opines that this was the President's first mistake and a clear sign of weakness for someone known for being always deliberate and calculating in his public utterances. His reason for the apparent recant was not borne out by the resultant escalation of the criticisms by his political foes in the GOP and the ever self-righteous Police Union which called for an apology from the Commander-in-Chief.

The news media took up the battle cry and engaged in the most tedious debate and analysis of one person's opinion of a case of poor judgment by the Cambridge Police, even if that person happens to be the President of the United States. This begs the question, would the comment have received such attention, indignation and second guessing had it been made by a President who was white? My strong guess is definitely not or highly unlikely. George Bush's strong condemnation of the former Senate Minority Whip, Trent Lott, over the latter's comment endorsing Sen. Strum Thurmond's racist stand received nary a quip. He may not have used the word "stupid" but what words he used fit the House Majority Leader's ill-advised utterance. There's after all a saying that "if the shoe fits, wear it". The Cambrdge Police and Officer Crowley undoubtedly acted stupidly in the exercise of their police power. At the very least they exercised poor judgment. Hiding behind the letters of the law and pinning their hopes of being right on the conventional but unproven wisdom that you do not argue with the lawman is a poor excuse for handcuffing a well-known and eminent scholar who was in his house. Officer Crowley, in the dispatch tape that I heard, said the Professor was yelling. Yelling in one's home, particularly when provoked by a cop who does not know the limits of his power, is not a crime in any book.

In the end the President convened a tripartite beer party which turned into a foursome when the Vice President joined in to bring this unfortunate event to a close. Has this soiree over beer by the four participants solved the problem of racial profiling by the police all over America? Only time will tell. I, for one, am not going to hold my breath. I do, however, believe that many police officers in America need to grow a thick skin in order to avoid incidents such as we witnessed. The gun and bullet-proof jacket are not enough insulation against the longstanding antagonism and resentment they instantly arouse in people of color when incidents bring the two face to face.