Why Race Still Resonates

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009 9:22 AM

Out of deference to Sarah Palin, I will not be "making stuff up" in today's column.

Why has the racial debate surrounding the Gates arrest seemingly grown louder and more insistent by the day? Even now, a week later, the blogs and talk shows are still hashing it over, with occasional interruptions for Palin's finger-in-the-eye farewell to the media Sunday and -- what was that other issue we used to care about? -- health care.

I mean, now that Skip Gates and James Crowley have agreed to guzzle beer at the White House -- can an Oprah appearance be far behind? -- the thing is kind of over and we can all move on, right?

Well, no. First, there's one of Kurtz's laws of media physics: A cable-fueled controversy continues to percolate until another blowup of equal force and ratings potential surfaces to take its place. If a Michael Jackson dies, everything else gets blown out of the water.

But I believe Gates-gate has mushroomed into a larger debate that is no longer limited to the particulars of the disorderly-conduct arrest in Cambridge. Everywhere I go, ordinary folks are chatting about it. I was deluged with questions and comments during yesterday's online chat.

The discussion now is about race and class and privilege and law enforcement. It's about society and stereotypes and history -- a history in which too many minorities have been stopped and hassled by too many Caucasian cops. It's about the difference when someone prominent is subjected to the same indignities as others of the same race or ethnicity. And, of course, it's about the president, whether he should have waded into the matter involving his friend, professed surprise that his remarks triggered a firestorm, and then expressed regret for fueling the "media frenzy."

This is one of those gut issues that just feel different to African American journalists, a number of whom continue to write about their own past run-ins with the police. The latest is columnist Leonard Pitts, who says that Gates looks "like me, with hands up and a rifle trained on my chest by an officer who later claimed he stopped me in that predominantly white neighborhood for a traffic violation. . . . We all look alike."

Maybe, on some level, this debate is healthy, though I'm sure Skip Gates would rather have gotten into his house unmolested. The punditry, meanwhile, still revolves around Obama.

Hot off the presses: The beer (Bud? Michelob? Heineken?) is on tap:

"White House aides are downplaying expectations that the beer summit that Obama suggested last week will produce a resolution," the Chicago Tribune reports.

"It's set for Thursday, an administration official confirmed Monday night. Both Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. have agreed to come. That means Obama is on the hook to achieve some kind of agreement."

So will this be the diplomatic equivalent of the Camp David accords?

"Bilateral get-togethers between Obama and a host of foreign leaders in recent months have gotten less attention. The image of the president trying to use a beer-drinking session to mediate an ages-old, highly volatile dispute has given new definition to diplomatic mission."

Now comes word that the incident wasn't initially framed as a burglary or racial matter. The NYT reports on the 911 call from Lucia Whalen:

"The woman who called 911 to report a possible breaking and entering at the home of Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. told the dispatcher that she had 'no idea' if the two men she saw were breaking in and said that, in fact, they might live there . . .

" 'They kind of had to barge in, and they broke the screen door and they finally got in,' Ms. Whalen said on the recording, adding that she had also seen two suitcases on the porch. She later said, 'I don't know if they live there and just had a hard time with their key.'

"At one point, the dispatcher asked if she thought the men were breaking into the house. 'I don't know,' Ms. Whalen said, 'because I have no idea.' " And she was uncertain of their race, said she thought one of the men might be Hispanic.

That certainly casts it in a different light.

In the New Republic, Michael Crowley sees a pattern pitting the president against classic Republican figures:

"Obama was . . . mindful of what has become a favorite line of attack among post-Bush conservatives: the aggrieved white guy.

"This is the third time in the past year that Obama has squared off, directly or indirectly, with working-class white men. First, there was Joe the Plumber . . .

"Then, there was the Sotomayor nomination. His Supreme Court nominee was controversial for a recent court ruling which denied promotions deprived a group of white firefighters, coupled with her ill-advised advised assertion that 'a wise Latina' might reach a better decision that a white male judge . . .

"Now comes Sergeant Crowley. Conservatives could hardly ask for a more effective vehicle for this burgeoning narrative. While Joe the Plumber was an obvious moron, and Sotomayor too sympathetic and skillful to demonize, Crowley (no relation, sorry) is political gold. He is the hard-working white man who wears a uniform and risks his life for his country . . .

"Crowley also plays into the only theme conservatives like more than race, which is class. For Obama to be in the defense of a Harvard professor who summers on the Vineyard against a police officer who attends neighborhood softball games at night--particularly after Obama admitted during his first comments about the case that he did not know all the facts--is almost too good to be true, from the GOP's perspective . . . For once, conservatives stood to gain real traction on both issues of race and class in one simple episode."

It is true that the argument shifted when it turned out Crowley wasn't some redneck but taught a class on racial profiling. But I still think he went too far.

Tina Brown is the first to tie the president's initial remarks about Gates to his previous, somewhat flat 40 minutes at the presser:

"Obama's unaccustomed carelessness in jumping on a racial landmine at the end of his health care press conference illustrates two things. First, his vanity as a performer. And second, his insecurity about his health care arguments.

"The president, after a wordy, wonky, depressingly unconvincing briefing--one that he is pro enough to sense failed to make the sale to the press -- eagerly took the question from Chicago reporter Lynn Sweet about the Henry Louis Gates affair. Obama saw it as a chance to be funny, to be real, to be his charming self -- and to win back the room. . . .

"It was baffling enough that one so practiced in media manipulation had suddenly ensured that the next day's radio and TV talkathons would ignore his health care agenda and focus on the much more entertaining replays of his jokey, rueful, entirely inappropriate weigh-in on a local incident about which he had blithely admitted he did not know all the facts."

Also on the Daily Beast, Stanley Crouch chides his fellow African American:

"President Obama put his big foot in it when he chose to give an uninformed opinion using words far below his expected eloquent shrewdness to describe the minor mishap. The grand irony is that Obama, who once appeared so far above the kind of overstatement one expects from a rapper talking about race politics, spoke on the amateurish level we perhaps thought was behind us, because Obama seemed to perfectly understand the restraint demanded of his enormous power and influence. Every second-rate black comedian has a routine in which black Americans get a chance for 'payback' and take the white folks to task for all of the wrongs that they might not have committed but that they did not spurn whenever they resulted in skin-color privilege."

Obama didn't intend to step in it, says Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, and soon realized he had to retreat:

"The last thing the president wanted was to provoke a debate about race that enhances the polarization. . . . His original statement was prodding: come on, guys. We still DO this sort of thing in America? A Harvard professor gets arrested for being mouthy at a cop inside his own house? . . .

"There was a practical reason and a personal reason for backing down and delivering what amounts to a personal apology to a citizen -- a presidential bill of attainder -- a lose-face-to-save-faith gesture that is quite uncommon for politicians or people in public life. Practically, it did distract the press corps; the president's bully pulpit power relies on the media at least being attentive to presidential messaging."

In other words, he stepped on his own story -- health care was why he wanted an hour of prime time, remember? -- and lost control of the plot line.

At National Review, Victor Davis Hanson draws all kinds of conclusions about Obama's approach to race:

"From time to time, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Clarence Thomas have naturally talked about growing up African-American under far less tolerant conditions than those we take for granted today. Yet their biggest contributions to American race relations have been their admirable abilities to transcend such racial intolerance -- to make being black incidental, not essential, at least in public, to their sterling characters and impressive achievements.

"They all paid a price for emphasizing individuality rather than adhering to identity politics. Those on the left often criticized them as somehow inauthentic, or not fully representative of the 'real' black experience . . .

"The media . . . were eager to accept the implicit pact that the soothing racial healer Barack Obama offered them. It was an unspoken understanding that might be paraphrased as something along the following lines: 'Vote for me and I will offer you instant exemption from all prior racial guilt -- and yet allow you to live your rather secluded lives as usual.' . . .

"None of us gets a pass once we evoke racial identity, not even the president of the United States, not even one of mixed racial heritage. Once we go down that road of racial self-aggrandizement, of seeing each other not by the content of our characters, but by the color of our skins, we invite nemesis -- and there will be retribution. Because Barack Obama has consistently emphasized racial identity to further his own advantage, I fear others, both black and white, will be emboldened to follow his polarizing lead -- in ways both novel and far more pernicious."

Come on: Even if Obama's "stupidity" comment was stupid, does anyone believe that he ran, and got elected, as a "black" candidate? By the same token, is he now supposed to erase from his mind the fact that he is an African American? Of course, no one suggests that any white president was influenced by his Caucasian-ness in talking about race.

At Pajamas Media, Jennifer Rubin ties the Gates fuss to -- the stimulus and all sorts of other things:

"The underlying fault line in Obama's presidency and his agenda is the growing sense that government is getting too big and is accumulating too much power. It is not just core Republicans who think government is doing too much, but an overwhelming number of independents who are irked by the Washington power grab. Obama, by meddling in a local matter and getting it all wrong, only fed the story line that he is out to boss us around, run our lives, and impose his left-wing perspective on every aspect of American life."

Well, he did meddle in a local matter. Isn't that what George Bush and the Republicans did in the Florida case of Terri Schiavo? And there, they imposed not just their conservative perspective but their political will.

Military vs. Media

In response to my article Saturday on the Navy's Guantanamo spokesman, Jeffrey Gordon, sending a letter accusing Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg of verbal sexual harassment, Tim Elfrink says in Miami New Times:

"Surely, the letter has nothing to do with the fact that Rosenberg has been a thorn in Gitmo's side for more than four years now. She's broken more news from the tightly controlled base than anyone on the planet, including her scoop two weeks ago about a prisoner protest.

"On a personal note, I had to laugh at Gordon's complaint about 'Carol's attempts to bully other reporters and establish dominance' on the base. When I traveled to Gitmo in January for our story on the base's final days, Rosenberg helped me from start to finish with my reporting and asked nothing in return. . . .

"It's about asking too many questions, demanding too much access, and refusing to go along with the dog-and-pony show that Gordon wants reporters to write about. Let's hope Gordon's desperate ploy doesn't work. We all need Carol Rosenberg in Gitmo."

Obama a Citizen!

Will this quiet the "birthers" -- or the people who keep putting them on TV?

"State officials in Hawaii on Monday said they have once again checked and confirmed that President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and is a natural-born American citizen, and therefore meets a key constitutional requirement for being president."

What a relief!

Gossip Search

If you're the type who's dying to know who will replace Paula Froelich at the New York Post's Page Six, The Wrap gives odds on Lloyd Grove and other contenders.

Life After Death

Now that Ann Arbor is without a daily paper, the Michigan college town must get by with Ann Arbor.com, which is laid out like a blog, not a newspaper. It's very local -- to the point of carrying such posts as "Bethany Schultz wins state and regional Jaycees Outstanding Young Michiganders Awards" and "Adaptive Materials' Michelle Crumm among finalists for Entrepreneur Magazine award."

Obama's Tweet Team

After reports that Twitter is blocked at the White House, Mediaite's Rachel Sklar learns that an exception is made for the new media team (which does the official twittering). Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton offers this candid explanation:

"I have an account that I follow on my personal blackberry but I don't actually twitter myself. It's more to keep track of what Diddy and Perez Hilton are up to all day."

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