If Obama appears to take in stride the many challenges of being a “first,” interviews with friends and associates who have been in private meetings with him offer a window into how he thinks about race and the difficulties of inhabiting this unique role.
The ‘beer summit’
By the time Charles Ogletree was ushered into the Oval Office, there was much to talk about, a lot on Obama’s mind. The president had been thrown off-stride months earlier by a racial controversy he willingly entered, and he was still feeling the effects.
On July 22, 2009, Obama was asked at a news conference that was largely about health care to comment on an incident involving the prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was arrested at his home by a white police officer responding to a 911 caller’s report of a break-in.
“It’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry,” Obama said. “Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”
Then came the fusillade. Law enforcement organizations accused Obama of stepping into their business and drawing conclusions about an incident when he did not have all the facts. Glenn Beck, the conservative commentator, charged that Obama held a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” And on it went.
Black supporters urged him not to back down from his remarks that racial profiling remained a vexing problem, but for Obama it was complicated. Many of his allies believed that the birth of the tea party movement was in part due to discomfort with a black president. Yet, public opinion surveys were starting to show steep drops in his job approval rating among whites, and his natural instinct was to find conciliation. Hence, a “beer summit” that brought Gates together in the Rose Garden with his white arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley. The event was mocked in some quarters and provided juicy material for the late-night comedy sketchers.
Ogletree, Obama’s old friend and mentor, had proved himself wise in sorting through the complexities of race and identity. And so months after the Gates episode, the two sat in comfortable chairs beneath a portrait of George Washington and discussed the high wire Obama often felt he was walking as a black president.
He told Ogletree that he was ready to worry less about the consequences of being labeled either an angry black man or a black man unwilling to embrace his race. He wanted to take more chances and not fret so much about the fallout.