The conflagration between Sergeant James Crowley and Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, with added kindling compliments of the president, has served the pundits of America as the newest visitation of That Which Must Be Written About.
Lynn Sweet of the Sun-Times set the table at the president’s news conference on health care last Wedneday evening by changing the subject to ask him what he thought about Gates’s arrest. The president thought the police had “acted stupidly. My old friend Brent Staples of the New York Times was out of the box on Thursday. “People who have heretofore viewed Mr. Obama as a “postracial” abstraction were no doubt surprised by these remarks,” Staples wrote. “This could be because they were hearing him fully for the first time.”
Further comment gushed out of every editorial fissure. Keeping to the papers I read regularly:
Stanley Fish, NYT (blog), July 24: “Gates and Obama are not only friends; they are in the same position, suspected of occupying a majestic residence under false pretenses. And Obama is a double offender. Not only is he guilty of being Housed While Black; he is the first in American history guilty of being P.W.B., President While Black.”
Eric Zorn, Tribune (blog), July 25: “I'm doing what Obama should have done. I'm staying out of it.”
Mary Schmich, Tribune, July 26: “On Friday, in a carefully calibrated admission, [President Obama] acknowledged he could have ‘calibrated’ his words better. ‘I continue to believe,’ he said, ‘based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that professor Gates probably overreacted as well.’ That sounds about right. ‘Overreaction’ is another way of saying that neither professor Gates nor Sgt. Crowley saw the situation for what it was. They didn't pause to look.”
Editorial, Tribune, July 26: “Obama acknowledged that he had jumped to some conclusions. So did a great, great many people in this country, who were quick to assume facts that would fit their perspective. There were no bad people here. There were two respected people, one black and one white, who got into something that escalated.”
Steve Chapman, Tribune, July 26: “The White House press office tells me the president didn't talk to Gates or read the police report before commenting. Nonetheless, he rushed to conclude that the cop was not only dead wrong but possibly racist. Which sounds like the kind of unthinking snap judgment that leads to racial profiling.”
Clarence Page, Tribune, July 26: “I disagreed with President Barack Obama even before he did. I didn't think the Cambridge, Mass., police officer who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for ‘disorderly conduct’ at his home acted ‘stupidly.’ Sgt. James Crowley's use of legal force was excessive, yet well-tailored in Crowley's eyes to fit Gates' real offense: ‘contempt of cop.’"
Editorial, Sun-Times, July 26: “If ever there was a chance to dig into this issue in a smart and open manner, rather than with the usual blunt recriminations, this is it.”
Mary Mitchell, Sun-Times, July 26: “I’m sorry. Gates isn’t the face of racial profiling. The real faces are the black and Latino motorists who are still being stopped and searched by police officers simply because they are people of color….To call Gates’ arrest an example of racial profiling obscures this issue and drives us even further apart.” This was Mitchell's second bite of the apple. On July 23, even before Obama spoke, she'd written: "I wish someone had been watching when thieves broke into my house and made off with everything they could carry. But like so many other communities in America, we live in neighborhoods of strangers."
Richard Roeper, Sun-Times, July 27: "When President Obama welcomes Henry Louis Gates and police Sgt. James Crowley to the White House for a beer, might I suggest he also invite the Most Interesting Man in the World so they can resolve their differences over a Dos Equis."
Maureen Dowd, NYT, July 26: “As the daughter of a police detective, I always prefer to side with the police. But this time, I’m struggling.”
Glenn Loury, NYT, July 26: “The Gates arrest is a made-for-cable-TV tempest in a teapot. It is the rough equivalent of a black man being thrown out of a restaurant after having berated an indifferent maitre d’ for showing him to a table by the kitchen door, all the while declaring what everybody is supposed to know: this is what happens to a black man in America.”
Judith Warner, NYT, July 27: “The clash in Cambridge …was just a snippet of our culture’s ongoing meta-narrative about race.”
Black writers such as Mitchell and Loury and Page were particular useful commenting on the Gates-Crowley confrontation: Racial profiling is real and it is pernicious, they told us, but this is a piss-poor example of it. But everyone had something to add, and the significant thing is that they were adding it. They were signaling that as racial turmoil goes, this spot of trouble was historic. It had been a face-off between black and white America in which everyone got both sides. Neither man had behaved well; each man had behaved understandably. It felt like some kind of milestone.