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Analysis: Obama's comments on Gates arrest may be his most candid remarks on race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2009 - After an hour talking about health care and after months of trying to stay above the racial fray, President Barack Obama said at his press conference on Wednesday that Cambridge police acted "stupidly" in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his own home.

He said the arrest and racial profiling show that "race remains a factor in the society. That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. And yet, the fact of the matter is this still haunts us."

Lynn Sweet -- the indefatigable Chicago Sun-Times reporter who has followed Obama for years and who is known to file stories while at the dinner table -- may have caught Obama off guard at the end of the press conference when she asked him about the arrest of the noted African-American professor earlier this week. 

Obama's answer was less cautious than his usual remarks about race. He sounded more like a civil rights leader than the statesman. These may be the most candid remarks that Obama has made about race since he was elected.

Obama said that the police had acted stupidly by arresting Gates after he had proved his identity and demonstrated that he lived in the house. Police were called to the home when a passerby saw Gates and his driver trying to force their way past a front door that had gotten stuck while Gates was away on a trip.

Police arrested Gates for disorderly conduct after he allegedly became boisterous in accusing the officer of racism. (See the Volokh Conspiracy posts for the a link to the police report and to Gates' attorney's statement. The city dropped the charges on Tuesday saying it was "regrettable and unfortunate."

David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University, wrote after the arrest: "I don't see what the point of arresting Gates was. Yelling at a cop isn't a crime, Gates clearly posed no threat to anyone, and the cop should have either used his training to defuse the situation or just walked away -- he already knew that Gates wasn't a burglar, which was the original reason for the cops' presence."

Bernstein later added, "Personally, whenever I encounter cops in a potentially adversarial situation, e.g., during a traffic stop, I become absurdly obsequious, precisely because I know they have the power to arbitrarily arrest me."

Obama said he knew "Skip Gates" and so might be biased. He joked that if he tried to break into his house, the White House, "I'd probably get shot." Then he added that anyone would be angry in Gates' position, that the police had acted "stupidly" and that racial profiling is a fact of life.

"Separate and apart from this incident," he said, "there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately. That's just a fact.

"As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society."

Obama probably spoke the truth on all counts, but he may have opened himself to criticism by speaking so frankly and saying the police acted stupidly.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.