Now here is a story that I really wanted to ignore. I was annoyed that at the end of a one hour news conference almost entirely devoted to explaining a lot of the nuances of the health care bills working their way through Congress, the president gets tripped up by one question about the arrest of Henry Gates in Cambridge. Then the media--which knows that extended discussion of all of the details of health insurance reform, while undoubtedly important for every American, is a sure-fire ratings loser--spends most of the next few days talking about whether a disorderly conduct arrest was racial profiling, or whether the president was too judgmental in his comments about the police, etc., etc. President Obama acted quickly to defuse the situation, but ended up drawing even more attention to it by inviting the two participants to the White House for beers, leading to even more media attention to the entire incident.
But on the other hand, what's the harm, during the middle of the summer, in taking the nation's attention away from all of the wonky policy issues slogging their way through Congress--not only health care, but also an energy bill, a financial reform bill, and a Supreme Court nomination--and focusing for a few days on something that is in fact really important, namely the issue of whether we can all get along with one another. The Gates incident is perhaps appropriately seized upon as a metaphor for changes that are taking place in the country. On the one hand, we have an African-American professor, leading a privileged life, but still feeling that he is not treated with appropriate respect, and still sensitive to the issue of racial profiling. On the other, a cop trying to make quick judgments in difficult situations that are always subject to second-guessing. Is the police officer an appropriate symbol of white resentment at the upside-down world many working class white people now may feel they are living in, with an African-American serving as president? Is it worrisome that polls show that most whites take Crowley's side, and most blacks support Gates? How much does deep-seated and unacknowledged racism still subtly affect the decisions of police officers, judges, teachers, and other white authority figures? These seem to be questions worth thinking about.
Both Gates and Crowley deserve a lot of credit for making some intelligent statements about this whole incident, promising to continue their dialogue, and trying to use it to make people think about important issues.
(For an analysis of this incident from the point of view of the president's use of mediation techniques, go to my mediation blog.)