Racism and the White House

ObamaFlag.jpgWhen Martin Luther King dreamed of the day when our children would not be known by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, he was re-expressing the brilliant but unrealized dreams of Genesis 1 — that each of us is an Eikon of God, the table fellowship practices of Jesus, and the magna carta of the apostle Paul — that there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ.

Those committed to those biblical visions and Dr. King’s re-expression, not to mention the inherent rights of the citizenship through our Constitution, are prohibited from racial profiling. Including our President, who seems in this case to have overstepped reason to perform a case of reverse racial profiling, for he seems to have given preferential treatment to an African American friend before he knew the facts. In the process, he seems to have prejudiced the case.

Some Republicans have been grousing about the “beer summit” for distracting the President from more important matters seem to be guilty of a case of “ideologuing” (no word but it might work here). Talk about racial profiling. Pray tell, what can be more important that racism in the USA? It’s got to be at the top of our lists of national and international concerns. If it takes beer summits to shed light on racial problems, then pour a Boddington for me. Anyone who thinks the beer summit distracts from important subjects needs a slow course on racism.

But, I have to say that President Obama’s regrets didn’t go far enough for me. He said that, had he known more, he might have recalibrated what he said. “Recalibrated”? C’mon. We need more than that. Had he known the facts he wouldn’t have said what he did. In fact, knowing President Obama as we do, he’d have said something completely different. He’s looked back on this one, and he knows what he’ll say next time and it will more than recalibrate what he said this time. 

Which is precisely the point in this whole fiasco. The genuinely teachable moment we needed from President Obama and his vision for a post-racial America (think Genesis 1, Jesus, and Martin Luther King) was to step back, discover all the facts, and demonstrate that an African American and biracial President can render wisdom when the heat flares. Wisdom that will help each of us.

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  • JJoe

    And we all believe that if the guy had been white he’d have been cuffed and arrested at his own house? C’mon.
    I didn’t see a black person until I was 17. I grew up in a town where all African-Americans were ran out of town in the 30s, a couple being lynched, and any who visited there even in the 60s or 70s did not dare let the sun go down on them. Might still be that way; I know there are still a lot of Klan there. The secret service would have its hands full if Obama were to visit.
    So, I tend to cut black people slack, not having been in their shoes and having seen some pretty nasty racism very close up. And I never ever ever assume that the police are pure as the driven snow, especially in cases like this. My dad was a cop and I knew too many of them.

  • Scot McKnight

    Thanks JJoe. There’s much more to be said about both Gates and the policeman, but I avoided those two subjects.

  • T

    Good point, Scot. Obama missed his moment. He can’t say now it wasn’t “stupid,” because he believes it was, even after seeing all the facts. But by saying so, he missed an opportunity to invite the nation to see this differently than they already did, on both sides of the racial fence.

  • Yes, it would have been better if Obama wouldn’t have taken sides initially. Even though he was touching on an issue which troubles African-American Christians I know, experienced for them even in churches and denominations.
    I guess I might not be so hard on the president, though I would agree that it would have been good if he could have spoken wisdom here into the entire issue, helpful for both sides, instead of just supporting one side against the other.
    Maybe in some way the administration could get you on board, Scot, as a spiritual advisor of his.

  • churchmouse

    Why is Obama messing with little cases like this? With the problems our country faces both at home and abroad…….he has to stick his nose in this? He obviously is not focusing on the bigger issues at hand. He cant keep his mouth shut that is for sure. In this case he put big foot in big mouth.

  • Scot McKnight

    churchmouse, I disagree.
    Obama spoke up because this was so important. Let me emphasize this again: the Republican reaction of some that he should stick to more important matters is a form of racial profiling, because it is an argument that racial matters don’t matter. Racial matters matter deeply in our country, so I’m glad he got involved.
    Your comment about keeping his mouth shut is disrespectful and misguided: Obama’s responsibility is to guide our country in matters pertaining to justice. Racism is about justice.

  • I’ll by appearance backpeddle to say that I agree that Obama shouldn’t have spoken on a case in which he did not know the entire story, both sides, evidently. At the same time I do have to agree that racism is still an important moral issue for our time which in the long run will matter much more than much that politics in Washington is taken up with now.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    …so I’m saying that it is good that racial profiling is being exposed, because regardless of the merits of the case Obama referred to, it is a problem, at least in the minds of many- my own included (and being part of the now European white majority in America, I can only try to appreciate the perspective of minorities, second-hand).
    Just saying what I’ve been saying in the previous comments.

  • Trisha

    I am so sick of people trying to say President Obama did something wrong. He got involved in this history of the United States of America’s major racist problem. The POLICE!!! The police have been treating minorities badly for years and they get away with it all the time unless someone catches it on camera. I am a white female and I have seen how the police treat people of color with my own eyes. I applaud the President for speaking out.

  • Heather

    I think the beer summit was exactly spot-on the right thing to do. And I think Prof. Gates has done some excellent post-mortem talking on the topic.
    I wish our country wasn’t so racialized. But we live in a highly racialized society.

  • When the police saw Professor Gates’s ID, they should have said, “We are terribly sorry for the inconvenience, sir. Is there anything we can do for you.”
    What wisdom did they show in staying around to escalate the situation?
    And why do Christians listen the incoherent babbling of Glen Beck. “He has a deep-seated hatred of white people . . . I’m not saying he doesn’t like white people.”
    What is racist or reverse racist about saying it is stupid to arrest a man in his own home for being in his own home?
    After 400 years of slavery, 100 years of segregation and institutional discrimination–are we supposed to believe that racism suddenly vanished and the nation became totally color blind in less than 40 years?
    The president exercised a great deal of restraint, tact, and discretion when he correctly characterized the police’s action as stupid.

  • JJoe, an an African American, thank you for your empathy.

  • Kenton

    Thorough police work requires more than just seeing the ID and leaving. What if an intruder was in the house attempting to hold Dr. Gates or someone in his family hostage? Police are trained on these calls to get the owner to come out of the house so they can determine that that isn’t the case. That’s the wisdom in escalating the situation. It begs the question: why didn’t Dr. Gates co-operate? But we don’t have to go there.
    Your analysis was great, and I appreciate you bringing a nice balance to the story.

  • coldhotel

    I would ask whether the police as an actual policy do in fact go that extra step to make sure nothing is amiss, that there’s no hostage situation, or whether that scenario was trotted out to make, frankly, a sow’s ear look like a silk purse.
    Politically speaking, I wish President Obama had said nothing, or said something bland; I however applaud him because he showed a little bit of passion; people who speak out of passion often say something that opens them up to criticism; it’s risky business. I think saying SOMEthing about racism rather than saying NOthing about racism is great.

  • Charlie

    Thanks for the interjection of balance. I agree that the President messed this on up big time and in doing so elevated it to the national scandal that it became. When it comes to sensitive issues such as race there is always a need for both sides to step back, be patient, gather the facts, and respond with caution. Maybe both sides will do better next time.

  • otto

    I tend to agree with the folks, that Pres. Obama probably would have been better off not making his initial comments.
    But on the other hand, I agree with Mark. Like it or not, we’re still quite far from being a color blind society, and race often plays a factor in police arrests. We’re not to the point in our society where
    it doesn’t — I pray for the day when it will.
    I see the whole thing as a ‘learning experience’ for all of us. And I think it’s great we have a President who’s willing to listen! What
    a refreshing change.

  • Rick

    It is good to have a discussion about this problem to help us move forward.
    However, as Juan Williams (NPR and Fox) stated last week, it is harder to make this situation a teachable moment when it appears the police did not racial profile, or make race an issue.
    If we try to make a national scandal out of a situation where it did not take place, it might diminish the impact and scandal of the situations where it actually does take place.

  • Kenton

    I tell you what: why don’t you go do a ride along with a police officer sometime? You can do that pretty much anywhere in the country. Afterward, you tell me what you think. You tell me whether or not they as a matter of policy go the extra step to make sure nothing is amiss, OK?

  • Travis Greene

    The semi-apology (“I should have recalibrated”) was lame, but he shouldn’t have apologized at all. What Sgt. Crowley did was stupid. Let’s not forget that the president taught Constitutional law; he knows what he’s talking about.

  • Scot McKnight

    Travis, well… let’s also not forget that it was the President who offered the “recalibrated” comment, an indication clearly that the one who taught Constitutional law was, in some sense, apologizing for what he had said.

  • T

    FWIW, While it’s true that Obama missed an opportunity, Mark’s (11) initial sentence is also true. The policeman used his power, not to protect the public, but his own ego, even looking at the facts from his perspective, which I’m sure is about half right. Given the history of the abuse of police power against people of color, it was right for the President to speak to the subject, and especially stupid for both people to act as they did. But even if Gates misused his tongue to call the man every name in the book, there’s no reason in law or policy for a policeman to arrest such a man in his own home, just because he can. Calling a policeman racist is not a crime, and, moreover, is often still true. But using the badge to arrest someone who is not a threat to anyone other than the officer’s ego is an abuse of police authority.

  • Karl

    JJoe, I’m white and I know better than to mouth off at a cop, regardless of the cop’s race. Yes sir, no sir (or ma’am) is how I was always told to speak to the one with the badge and the gun. Not out of some racial (or other) subservience but out of respect for the office and the authority and their need to do their job efficiently and unhindered by me. It was always hinted by my friends and acquaintances that to do otherwise than act respectfully to a police officer could result in unpleasant consequences.
    So, if a white cop showed up at my white-person house after I lost my key and had been trying to force my way in, and told me that he was investigating a reported break-in and demanded to see my ID, I would do my best to swallow my frustration and act civilly toward him. If I acted civilly toward him and cooperated with his requests then yes, I would be shocked if he arrested me.
    If instead of acting civilly and cooperating I yelled at him, told him he was persecuting me, demanded to see his badge and know his name and the name of his superior officer before I would cooperate with him any further, berated him, refused to let him check the rest of the house to make sure that it was safe for me and that I really was the person that had been seen “breaking in” rather than someone who had arrived before me, and was generally disruptive and disrespectful and uncooperative – I would not be surprised to be arrested for disorderly conduct or obstruction of justice or some other such charge. In fact I would be surprised if I wasn’t so arrested. I would not be surprised if he met my belligerence toward him with a peremptory and dictatorial attitude of his own. I would be surprised and lucky not to get a white cop’s baton upside my white head, actually.
    Do I understand Dr. Gates’ frustrations and pent up anger and his suspicions of racial profiling? Sure. But he was (even if somewhat understandably in hindsight) a jerk to a man trying to do a dangerous and important job, and he refused to back down, insisting on dictating terms to an officer of the law who was trying to do his job, which is almost never going to go well. Anyone who acts that way toward a cop, regardless of race, runs the risk of arrest if not a physical takedown. Cops don’t take uncooperative and belligerent behavior by members of the public lightly – at all – regardless of whether the member of the public’s anger and indignation is warranted in the immediate moment.
    To the substance of Scot’s post, I too was surprised and disappointed to see Obama make a hasty public statement reflecting such an uninformed knee jerk reaction to the situation. He seemed more thoughtful than that. Racial profiling and racism generally need to be addressed and not swept under the rug as if they no longer exist. But Obama’s and Gates’ actions and words in this situation have closed a lot more ears than they have opened, IMO.

  • James

    You say rightly and simply Scot: This is an eikon issue.
    Christians should lead the way on this (and in my experience, they do). We cannot entertain issues that define people based on race, seperate them based on race, make basic assumptions about their inability to perform well or make good decisions based on race.
    Barbara Boxer hasn’t figured it out (http://www.politico.com/blogs/anneschroeder/0709/Sen_Barbara_Boxer_accused_of_race_politics_today_during_the_EPW_hearing.html)
    Dick Durbin hasn’t figured it out (http://www.weaselzippers.net/blog/2009/07/sen-dick-durbin-dkkk-says-dc-tops-in-abortion-because-its-residents-are-black.html)
    And even after 20 years of black liberation theology under Rev. Wright, even the President of the United States of America hasn’t figured it out.
    So much for post-racial America.
    Keep setting the example and fighting the good fight.

  • Jim

    You proved once more how little white America understands what it has been like and is like to be black in this country. Making this the Presidents fault is a little extreme. Recall he was answering a question at a press conference – and trying to be as honest as possible.
    Every cop knows that it was stupid to arrest a man in his own home.
    It was stupid for the cop not to be in control enough to hand it over to one of the other cops who wasn’t invested.
    It was stupid to have mug shots taken of a Harvard professor for being black in his own home.
    I agree we are certainly not in a post-racial America – we are living in a racist one.

  • pam

    Great post Scot – I too agree that I would have liked to see his apology be stronger than recalibration, but I REALLY appreciate the words he spoke acknowledging the complexity of the situation. Basically he said ‘we all acted stupidly’ (though I wish he had come out and said that) as we spoke from gut reaction which is heavily influenced by our life experience rather than what is actually happening in the moment. In emotional intelligence language, all three of them were experiencing an ‘amygdala hijack’ where our earliest emotional expereinces take over and lead our behavior. That part of the brain ‘hijacks’ us and we start to react before any part of our ‘higher, complex’ brain is engaged. Happens to all of us when under stress and driven by fear.
    This was a great case study for Obama’s speech ‘A more perfect union’ which he gave in Philly last March. This is a very significant issue for our country, and no country in history has had to deal with racism from so many angles, at such large scale, in the form of a multi-ethnic democracy. These conversations and continued ‘beer summits’ are crucial as long as we can get off the subject of what beer they drank and focus on understanding everyone’s unique perspectives. IMO, Our ability to move into these issues and not ignore them will determine our leadership in the world in the future.

  • James

    Sorry Jim, gotta call you on this one:
    “Every cop knows that it was stupid to arrest a man in his own home.
    It was stupid for the cop not to be in control enough to hand it over to one of the other cops who wasn’t invested.
    It was stupid to have mug shots taken of a Harvard professor for being black in his own home. ”
    Do you mind quoting every cop for us? Or can you admit that you made an absurd statement. Have you seen the CNN interview with Sgt. Crowley’s co-workers? This “for being black” meme denegrates yourself and every black person. It also continues the cycle of racism. Victimhood is a trap. He was arrested for being an idiot.

  • Have you all read Erica Haub’s thoughts on this incident?
    In my opinion, though Obama may have spoken too harshly or too quickly, he is not in the wrong to suspect the cop acted wrongly. As Erica points out, when you have seen firsthand what cops do in the inner city of Chicago, NY, LA, and other big cities, you do tend to leap to conclusions because unfortunately, the stereotypes too often are true.
    I have seen a white cop be offended by the impertinance of a black beggar. It’s true, there was impertinance, but the white cop reacted by beating the man (who was in a wheelchair and a cast) with the foot-rest of his wheelchair until he was bloody. This was in the middle of a Macdonalds in front of maybe 10 other people. A black woman was screaming, “Call the police!” but it WAS the police that were doing the beating.
    If this is what you have witnessed for years, as Obama and Gates probably have, then suspicion tends to come easily.

  • Joe

    It does not matter what you have witnessed … a PRESIDENT should not speak off the cuff when talking about legal matters. Can you imagine if Bush had done so? Sheesh. I am white and teach at a black college. I have become far more sensitive to the reality of racial grievances… and the absurdity of some of them. Gates is a self-serving peacock for letting this get so much publicity. He is acing more Ivy League “White” than anything else, and we are all the losers as a result.

  • James

    Do you think stereotyping is okay? Prejudice? Racism?
    All you’ve done is support a defense for those things.
    As for the cop in your story, he is an individual who acted criminally. IMO, the bystanders also acted criminally. Blackness and whiteness has nothing to do with any of it.