"The Cambridge police acted stupidly," President Obama said, in response to the last question in Wednesday's press conference.
It's turned out to be a controversial statement -- though there's no reason why it should be. The Cambridge police did act stupidly, and they continue to: Stephen Killion, president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officer's Association, said yesterday, of Obama, "I am disgraced that he is our commander-in-chief." Actually, Killion is disgraced by the behavior of Sgt. James Crowley, who acted stupidly when he arrested a world-renowned academic who walks with a cane, for the egregious crime of being black in his own house. Killion says the president "smeared the good reputation" of the Cambridge Police Department. Wrong again -- it's Crowley who damaged the reputation of the department, by wrongfully arresting Professor Henry Louis Gates.
There is a valid argument to be made that Obama would have been better off deflecting the question, to let the case unfold further before commenting, and to keep the focus on the issue of health care. (Though if he had taken a pass on the question, there would have been repercussions for that too.) But there was nothing wrong with the content of his answer.
Killion asserts that Gates "was provoking the incident. He wanted to prove who he was." That's understandable, isn't it, when you've been accused of breaking into your own home? Killion alludes to audiotapes in which "you can clearly hear [Gates] berating the officer." Again, shocking; imagine that! I would have berated the officer too. No one should deny that many police officers are noble and benevolent defenders of public safety. But it is equally offensive to deny that many other police officers are "power-hungry bigots" who get off on bullying people into needless and humiliating displays of deference and submission. Given the history of vicious, racist police brutality in America, it's no wonder so many Americans believe it's dangerous to criticize a cop.
Crowley told a radio reporter, "From the time [Gates] opened the door it seemed that he was very upset, very put off that I was there in the first place. Not just what he said, but the tone in which he said it, just seemed very peculiar -- even more so now that I know how educated he is." Yes, I'm sure Professor Gates was very upset. Perhaps even put off. He returns from overseas, finds his door jammed, breaks into his own house, and is then aggressively questioned at the door by a cop who arrests him for "disorderly conduct" (an obviously baseless charge, which the police dropped on Tuesday). Under those circumstances, it's entirely reasonable to be upset. And the reference to "how educated he is" sounds a little -- what's the word? -- racist.
So a delicate situation was handled stupidly, and the President of the United States said so. And now, instead of talking about the real subject of the press conference (health care), or the ongoing crisis of racism in America, the pundits are talking about whether it was appropriate for Obama to say that the police acted stupidly. In an interview with Sirius/XM radio, Professor Gates offered his take on Obama's statement: "I think that the circumstances are so egregious...that...it was the adjective that...logically popped into his head." Yes. Stupidly is a very logical adjective to use when describing something stupid. But we're not supposed to say stupid; it's not nice. So when a profoundly stupid man named George W. Bush was in the White House, commentators strained for euphemisms. "The president is incurious," they'd say. Which made them sound stupid.
It's no crime to be stupid. It's no crime to be a racist either. But if a legislator or a law-enforcement officer does his or her job in a manner which is stupid or racist, we are all affected by it, and it should be pointed out. Why can't we call stupidity stupidity? Why can't we call racism racism?
Is it possible that our country's inability to conquer racism is connected to our unwillingness to call it when we see it? Or are we inhibited the right's strategic, hysterical claim that the real problem has to do with baseless accusations of racism (and the apparently epidemic bigotry suffered by white male Christian Americans). Watch Senator Lindsey Graham questioning Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and watch Senator Jeff Sessions questioning her, and try to make a reasonable argument that those two men are not racists. Now, maybe they don't go around saying "I wish they would all die!" But nobody can refute that they condescendingly subjected a Hispanic woman to a degree of race-based suspicion which no white nominee would ever have to face. Sessions and Graham might be well-intentioned. Maybe they're not sitting there in the chamber thinking, "I'll be damned if a Puerto Rican gets on the Supreme Court!" But they are still racists -- and the national conversation would be healthier if more people said so. Perhaps it would force Sessions, Graham, and others like them to examine these things more closely. Most racists, I'm sure, have no idea that that's what they are. We should tell them. It might help them change.
Nowhere do we see more racism and stupidity, more deserving of those descriptions, than in the toxic "birther" movement. Watch the ubiquitous footage of a crazy woman yelling at Rep. Mike Castle (R-Delaware), and listen to the roar that erupts from the audience after she screeches, "Why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?" (An ironically misphrased question, as it's actually people like her who are ignoring the president's birth certificate.) In that woman's demented monologue, and in the shouted approval of some in the audience, there is genuine stupidity and genuine racism, and it's important that people acknowledge this, to help deflate the idea that the "birthers" are just offering one reasonable side of a legitimate and unresolved debate.
That woman at the Mike Castle town hall -- that was one thing. ("Poor thing," said James Carville to Larry King. "...These poor pathetic people.") What's really disturbing is when mainstream conservative voices -- people who should, and do, know better -- perpetuate the "birther" nonsense as a pure ploy. "You're playing with fire," Rachel Maddow told Pat Buchanan during their much-noted face-off of last week. It's exactly the right phrase. Maddow and Buchanan were discussing Sotomayor, but it applies here too: When people like Rep. John Campbell (R-California), Liz Cheney, Lou Dobbs, and G. Gordon Liddy get in on the "birther" act, they're playing with fire -- willfully inciting the outrage of the far right's lunatic fringe, and using xenophobia and racism to do it.
Because they are reasonably intelligent people who know better than to believe it themselves, they're very careful to disclaim the actual conspiracy theory, for the benefit of any rational thinkers who might be listening. But they're also sending messages to the base at home, deliberately feeding their hostility toward our worldly African-American president. When Larry King asked her if she actually questioned Obama's citizenship, Liz Cheney quickly brushed it aside: "No, I'm not saying that." Heavens no, of course not! But she continued: "I'm saying that people are fundamentally uncomfortable...with an American president who seems to be afraid to defend America, stand up for what we believe in." So her main point is that the president is suspiciously un-American. Lou Dobbs gave an even more blatant performance, saying of Obama, "I'm starting to think we have a document issue. You suppose he's un-- no, I won't even use the word undocumented, it wouldn't be right." No, it wouldn't be right at all, Lou, but look at that -- you did it.
These are hateful and dangerous lies, and although they're most intense at the fringes, they're being helped along by conservatives who pretend to be moderates. These lies have less traction, I think, when we speak the truth plainly in opposition. "I want my country back!" wailed the poor pathetic woman at the Mike Castle event. What she doesn't realize is that with the election of Barack Obama, her country has come closer than ever before to the stated ideals of its founders. Racism is anti-American. You should not be able to subject Judge Sotomayor to a barrage of racist insinuations without being called a racist. And if you arrest Henry Louis Gates for entering the home of Henry Louis Gates, expect someone to point out that you were acting stupidly.