Barack Obama seldom sets a foot wrong. But last week, he put it in his mouth. When asked (during an exceedingly tedious press conference on health care) to comment on the case of the white cop and the black Harvard professor, he did. That was his first mistake. His second was to say that the police had "acted stupidly" when they clapped the cuffs on his good friend Henry Louis Gates.
Mr. Obama happened to be right, but not because he was acquainted with the facts. Dr. Gates had acted stupidly, too. On top of that, the offending cop turned out to be an expert in racial profiling who was best known for having performed CPR on a black basketball star. Not surprisingly, cops all over went ballistic. One black female police officer vowed she'd never vote for Mr. Obama again. The postracial President, the one who'd been so adept at distancing himself from the race wars, had plunged into the deep end.
Other people didn't bother with the facts either. Instead, they assumed the usual rhetorical positions. Right-wing pundits (briefly diverted from their loony crusade to prove that Mr. Obama wasn't really born in America) leaped all over Dr. Gates and likened Mr. Obama to race demagogues like Al Sharpton. Black activists insisted that Mr. Obama hadn't gone far enough. The next day, the President, admitting that he'd put his foot in it, prudently rowed back. He's invited everybody over to the White House today for a postracial beer.
So what really happened? It started with a 911 call from a woman who said two men had been spotted possibly trying to break in to a house. Sergeant James Crowley was dispatched to the scene. There he found Dr. Gates, who had returned from a fatiguing trip and was now inside the house. Both men demanded to see ID. Things got heated. According to the police report (which is disputed by Dr. Gates), he yelled, "This is what happens to black men in America!" When asked to step outside, according to police, he replied, "Yeah, I'll speak with your mama outside." At that point, he was cuffed, hauled off to the station and charged with the familiar crime of mouthing off to a cop. Dr. Gates calls himself the victim of a "rogue" officer.
Colin Powell is another friend of Dr. Gates. He too has plenty of experience navigating a world in which people misjudge you because of the colour of your skin. He is among the rare voices with a nuanced view of the affair. "I would've thought at that point some adult supervision would have stepped in and said, 'Okay, look, it is his house. Let's not take this any further,' " he told Larry King. But he doesn't let Dr. Gates off the hook either. "My first teaching point for young people especially is, when you get involved with police, co-operate," he said. "There is no African-American in this country who has not been exposed to this kind of situation. Do you get angry? Yes. Do you manifest that anger? Do you protest? Do you try to get things fixed? Yes. But it's the better course of action to try and take it easy and don't let your anger make the current situation worse."
What we have here is two accomplished men who should have known better. Perhaps it's no coincidence that they turn out to be related. Both have proud Irish roots (Dr. Gates is descended from an Irish immigrant and a slave girl), and both can trace their ancestry back to the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages. Irish tempers are notorious. Somehow, I doubt a beer will settle things.
Why does every story about race in America turn into a screaming match? Maybe it's because so many people are on the defensive. They feel they're automatically judged guilty until proven innocent - blacks, of being lawbreakers or second-class citizens, and whites, of being irredeemably racist. Mr. Obama has promised us a teachable moment, but he surely knows the biggest lesson is for him. He won't go there again. You can count on that.