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OBAMA, 2011

A Rasmussen poll published in Fall 2010 reveals that only 36 percent of Americans think the relationship between blacks and whites is getting better. This number is down from 62 percent who, in July 2009, reported feeling that race relations are improving. That was the same month in which Cambridge, Massachusetts, police arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and at a news conference following the arrest, President Barack Obama criticized the police. He acknowledged that he did not know the full situation, “not having been there and not seeing the facts,” but nonetheless he said that the police had “acted stupidly.”

He continued: “[T]here’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.” For some people, this was just a half-fact, forcefully but inartfully expressed at that.

Obama’s response here may have been the beginning of a fracture along racial lines about precisely what Obama represents in “postracial America.” For the man who, as Joe Klein put it for Time magazine in 2006, “transcends the racial divide so effortlessly,”2 there was nothing postracial in the president’s analysis of the Gates affair.

For blacks, Obama spoke the pure and simple truth: blacks and Latinos are stopped – harassed, really – much more by the police than whites. Young black and Latino males in particular live in a virtual police and penal state, where they are under constant suspicion. Consider the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer on January 1, 2009, in Oakland, California. Grant is just one example of the many unarmed blacks who have been assaulted or killed by the police.

(On November 5, 2010, the officer was sentenced to two years in prison; many blacks in Oakland, feeling the sentence far too lenient, responded with protest demonstrations.) And to think that a black professor at Harvard would be arrested on the grounds of his own home! That he would be asked to produce identification and prove that he lived there! For blacks, Obama was right to side with “the brother,” despite not knowing the facts of the case. He was right to be skeptical of cops and the so-called justice bureaucracy they represent.3

Many whites, on the other hand conservatives in many instances, but not exclusively or even mainly so – were appalled. How could the president adopt a stance on a case whose details were largely unknown to him? Why, indeed, was he even commenting on a case that involved local law enforcement? It was in no way a federal matter, and therefore the president, rightly, should have made no comment. To these white Americans, Obama’s response seemed as crazy as if Bill Clinton had commented on O. J. Simpson’s arrest in 1995 for the murder of his wife.

As defined by federalism, presidents should not talk about matters of state law enforcement unless some urgent federal interest compels it. Moreover, many whites were uncomfortable about the president’s rush to judgment of the Cambridge police. After all, it is true that blacks and Latinos are stopped disproportionately by the police, but it is also true that they commit a hugely disproportionate share of violent crime in America – the other half of the fact that Obama’s initial response seemed to elide. (Blacks and Latinos, for instance, committed 89 percent of all murders in New York City between 2003 and 2009.

4Eighty-eight percent of the victims were also blacks and Latinos, which is why, from the perspective of blacks and Latinos, so little is being done about crime in urban minority communities.5)

Blacks are generally proud that Obama openly took their side in this matter, that he understood, articulated, and, more important, legitimated their position. Many whites, however, were surprised that the president took any side at all, that he did not see the necessity as president to transcend such a matter. This was not Little Rock or Selma. The Cambridge police officer was not Bull Connor. (Indeed, the Cambridge Police Department is highly diverse, and its officers are given sensitivity training.)

Henry Louis Gates is not an uneducated, unemploy