Obama uses beer tact in race row

July 30, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Jul 30 – US President Barack Obama hosts a white police officer and an eminent black scholar at the White House on Thursday, hoping in the process to quell a heated national furore over racial profiling.

Obama was to welcome distinguished Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates and police sergeant Jim Crowley for 2200 GMT beers at the White House, hoping to turn the page on a controversy over race that erupted during a July 16 incident at the scholar’s home.

The contretemps flared when Gates – America’s foremost scholar on African American affairs – was arrested after police received a call that two men might be attempting a break-in at a house in the Boston suburb of Cambridge.

As it turned out, the "break-in" by Gates was an attempt to enter his own home when the door lock jammed.

Gates and Crowley exchanged heated words, and the professor was ultimately arrested for disorderly conduct during a heated exchange.

Obama, the first black US president, added to the controversy when he said the police had "acted stupidly" by arresting his friend after establishing that Gates had been in his own home.

The incident sparked an intense national discussion as to whether police rushed to stereotype a black man as a potential criminal – even a bookish one such as Gates – solely based on his race.

But public outrage also swelled over Obama’s choice of words, and his hasty characterisation of what had happened.
Some critics say the president maligned Crowley, a well-regarded officer in Cambridge – where Harvard is located – who trained others in his department on the perils of racial profiling.

Last week Obama telephoned Crowley to express regret over his statement, and to invite the police officer and Gates to the White House for a reconciliation beer.

Obama later said that blame in the standoff was probably shared, suggesting that Gates "probably overreacted" – as did police, by booking a middle-age professor for being hot-headed.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has described the White House make-up session as "a chance to talk and a chance to have a dialogue," adding that it offered a "teachable moment" for all involved – and the country at large.

Just bringing the players together will show "we can still sit down and discuss issues that are important like this, that we can, I think, as the president has said many times, disagree without being disagreeable," he said.

The controversy ends the first six months of Obama’s presidency in which he managed not to be defined by his race, but Gibbs said the president hopes that the "beer summit" can be an important symbol of reconciliation.

"Despite the incident, despite what happened, despite what was said after that, we can still sit down and discuss issues that are important like this," the spokesman said this week.

"We can, I think as the president has said many times, disagree without being disagreeable, and I think it will be a poignant moment."


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