President Obama was six months into his first term and still focused on stabilizing the economy, establishing himself on the world stage and passing a health-care bill. Race was a secondary agenda issue. In fact, on July 16, 2009, in an address to the centennial convention of the NAACP in New York, Obama held up his election as an American triumph:
“Because ordinary people did such extraordinary things, because they made the civil rights movement their own, even though there may not be a plaque or their names might not be in the history books — because of their efforts I made a little trip to Springfield, Illinois, a couple years ago, where Lincoln once lived and race riots once raged, and began the journey that has led me to be here tonight as the 44th president of the United States of America.”
He said that despite lingering “barriers,” young black people in America should take control of their own futures.
“No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands — you cannot forget that,” he said. “That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses.” Racial optimism was central to Obama’s narrative of hope.
But the day he delivered that convention speech, Harvard professor and noted African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass., spawning an acrimonious national debate about racial profiling. A few days later, Obama, for the first time in his presidency, stumbled into a race debate from which his image as a racial healer has never recovered. His approval rating among white men plummeted, never to rebound.
“I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that,” Obama said after Gates’s arrest. “But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; 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’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”
In that moment, any notion that Obama’s election had transformed America into some kind of post-racial society was shattered. In general, blacks agreed with him and whites thought he played the race card.
Stunned by the response, and still harboring hopes that he could bind the nation’s racial wounds, Obama attempted a deeply personal fix.
He scheduled an event at the White House dubbed the “beer summit” and invited Gates and the officer who arrested him to have a conversation with him and Vice President Biden.
Gates was arrested after a neighbor called 911 to report that two men were trying to get into a house in what she worried might be a burglary.
The two men were Gates, who was returning from a television production trip to China, and the cabdriver who brought him home from Boston’s Logan International Airport. Gates, who walks with a cane, found his front door damaged and jammed. Gates went in through the back with a key, turned off his alarm and, with the driver’s help, forced opened the front door.
By the time police arrived, Gates was inside and the driver who had carried his luggage into the house was gone.
The responding officer, Sgt. James Crowley, asked Gates to step outside of the house. Gates refused. A confrontation followed, and Crowley arrested Gates on a charge of disorderly conduct and led him out of his house in handcuffs.
News of the arrest set off a national debate about racial profiling that consumed the first summer of Obama’s presidency.
Six days after the arrest, Obama held a conference to talk about health care and was asked about the Gates arrest. He gave his comments, which he later said he regretted.
The beer summit yielded fuzzy photographs of the four men drinking and eating peanuts. But the lasting impression was that the president had stepped into a divisive racial debate for which he was unprepared.
— From staff reports