Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
(Updated below, after Obama statement)
I personally wish President Obama hadn’t directly criticized the lamentable arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police on Tuesday. Obama made two factual errors in his remarks — Gates had not forgotten his keys, they didn’t work because his lock had been broken in a burglary attempt; and he didn’t jimmy the door open, he got in the back door — which suggested his comments weren’t fully informed, as correct as his ultimate judgment may turn out to be. I understand and support his desire to speak out against racial profiling; I wish (and I’m sure he does too) he could take back the statement that the police acted “stupidly.”
I myself am not sure if the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates; we don’t yet know all the facts, although from what we do know, it seems an arrest could have and should have been avoided. But I will say conclusively that they acted stupidly on Friday, holding a blustering press conference to support Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, but then saying Crowley wouldn’t speak. Of course, Crowley has been speaking, selectively, to the media, so it was a strange decision to mute him today — especially because he’s come across as fairly sympathetic when he has spoken up. An even stranger decision by the local cops: To announce the support of multicultural police associations, and to assemble a diverse roster of male and female officers behind the podium – but then, to only choose to have white male cops speak. Not smart. Not smart at all. Downright stupid.
I think between them, James Hannaham and the Ivy League African-American who chose the byline “The Phantom Negro,” have summed up all the complexity of this case, and its basic simplicity, too. There’s almost no compelling reason for a man who walks with a cane to be arrested in or just outside of (there’s some debate about which) his own home, whether or not he mouthed off a bit to the cops. There’s also no compelling reason for Gates to have mouthed off the way he did, if Crowley’s account is to be believed, since at least in the origins of the police visit, they were trying to protect Gates’ property, not harm him.
And while almost no one is talking about it, class is nearly as relevant here as race. There is often tension between working-class cops and academics, whether students or professors, in campus towns. The assumption by the liberal elite, from President Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick on down, that the well-off, well-loved, well-connected Gates (defended by his best friend in the Washington Post though the piece is only online in Gates’ own TheRoot.com; interviewed, unbelievably, by his own daughter for the Daily Beast) was completely in the right here, has to gall these white working-class cops.
Still, there is a dangerous way this case is playing into our increasingly grim dialogue about race in post-Obama America. From the unfair attacks on Sonia Sotomoyor to the paranoia of the “Birthers,” to the false claims of increasing white disadvantage made by right-wing pundits from Rush Limbaugh to MSNBC’s Pat Buchanan, there has been a sharp and irrational spike in the sense of white racial grievance. The Gates-Crowley flap is certainly not helping.
Today Robert Gibbs said the president “regrets” distracting the media by getting involved in the flap, and to me that’s good news. But we might need a brief follow-up to Obama’s Philadelphia race speech before we’re through. Nobody is stepping up to defuse this conflict; there’s mainly been escalation, just as there was last Thursday in Gates’ Cambridge home. The fact is, Obama’s opponents are using any means necessary, including race, to thwart his political agenda. He didn’t need this particular racial passion play getting in his way. Who’s going to take the first step toward reconciliation? I’m watching closely.
Update: Well, I planned to watch closely, but I went to lunch first. And while I was gone, President Obama spoke to the White House press corps and took the first step toward reconciliation himself. He’s a mensch. It’s hard to admit your mistakes — our last president couldn’t even think of one when asked — and Obama’s capacity to admit he shouldn’t have escalated the Gates conflict is really impressive. Alex Koppelman has the full text of Obama’s remarks, plus video, here, I like the idea of Obama, Gates and Crowley having a beer in the White House. Would that all our racial conflicts would end this way. They won’t, but this is a really important first step. Next up: Pat Buchanan admits he’s wrong, white men aren’t being treated like blacks during Jim Crow. Kidding. We can only dream.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)