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07.26.09

Obama Steps In It

Henry Louis Gates’ arrest had nothing to do with America’s racist past. But why did Barack Obama go off half-cocked about it?

Read other takes on Gates' arrest from Daily Beast writers.

Once we get to the point that everyone from Maureen Dowd to Stanley Fish feels the need to say something about the more-than-minor incident that happened to Skip Gates at his home in Cambridge, we should not be surprised that every professional Negro victim worth his or her salt has had something to say. We have been repeatedly told what the incident itself "reveals" about purportedly stationary stereotypes that continue to resonate against an inarguable racist past. Inarguable though that racist past surely is, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

President Obama put his big foot in it when he chose to give an uninformed opinion using words far below his expected eloquent shrewdness to describe the minor mishap. The grand irony is that Obama, who once appeared so far above the kind of overstatement one expects from a rapper talking about race politics, spoke on the amateurish level we perhaps thought was behind us, because Obama seemed to perfectly understand the restraint demanded of his enormous power and influence. Every second-rate black comedian has a routine in which black Americans get a chance for "payback" and take the white folks to task for all of the wrongs that they might not have committed but that they did not spurn whenever they resulted in skin-color privilege. The president stumbled into a version of that kind of routine when he allowed the issue to overshadow a discussion of his health-care agenda.

Have no fear: Barack Obama will recover and he will bring all of the obligatory honor back to his administration and will continue to lay down the overriding challenges to all concerned—as he did in his brilliant speech to the NAACP on its 100th anniversary. It is more than significant that the president, as he told those attending his NAACP address, has chosen not to accept any excuses for selling out oneself, one's ethnic group, or one's country. Digging in and doing the very best that one can do has become a new version of patriotism. Given the stage cynicism of our moment, that version of patriotism is something far more meaningful to all of us than what happened to an influential black academic one afternoon in Cambridge on the steps of his home, where he was arrested for belligerence, no more, no less.

Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.