Obama Voices Regret to Policeman
He Moves to Dampen Racial Controversy
Saturday, July 25, 2009
President Obama, attempting to quell a mushrooming racial controversy that threatened to eclipse his top domestic initiative, expressed regret Friday for saying that police "acted stupidly" by arresting black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home near Harvard University.
Making a surprise appearance before reporters at the White House, Obama said that he had unwittingly fanned smoldering racial resentment with his response to a question at a news conference Wednesday night. The president said he conveyed that sentiment in a five-minute telephone call to Sgt. James Crowley, the police officer who arrested Gates after being called to the Harvard professor's home to check out a suspected burglary.
"I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically -- and I could have calibrated those words differently," Obama said. "And I told this to Sergeant Crowley."
The Wednesday comment had become politically costly for the nation's first African American president, who has sought to cast himself as a clear-eyed arbiter of the nation's racial divisions.
That image was challenged once before, in a controversy surrounding another Obama friend. When the racially charged sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. became a lightning rod, candidate Obama gave a rare speech that directly addressed the country's racial wounds, and he cast aside Wright, someone he had once called a father figure.
This week, as a growing clamor from conservative critics and police representatives painted Obama as siding with his friend Gates in a battle with the police in Cambridge, Mass., Obama moved swiftly to remove himself as a combatant.
The president said he continues to think the arrest was an "overreaction" by the officer, but he said Gates "probably overreacted as well."
"My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved," Obama said, adding that he hoped the controversy would become a "teachable moment" for improving racial understanding.
Though he tried to remove the bite from his earlier statement, Obama described an uneasy relationship between African Americans and law enforcement.
"Because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African Americans are sensitive to these issues," said Obama, who sponsored legislation to track the racial breakdown of drivers stopped by police when he was an Illinois state senator. "And even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding."
But the president rejected the notion that, as Crowley said Thursday, he was wrong to take a position on the incident. Any president, he insisted, has a responsibility to contribute constructively to the discussion of racial discord, which he called "a troubling aspect of our society."
"There are some who say that as president I shouldn't have stepped into this at all because it's a local issue. I have to tell you that that part of it I disagree with," he said. "Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive -- as opposed to negative -- understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio."