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07.27.09

The Wrong Case

If Obama is going to wade into the national dialogue on race and criminal justice, he should forget about Skip Gates.

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

Hurray! Henry Louis Gates, a black Harvard professor, intends to have a beer this week with Sgt. James Crowley, the white police officer who arrested him. As racially fraught conflicts go, happier endings are rare. The Cellar is one Cambridge, Massachusetts. bar where a professor and a police officer might meet for drinks on neutral territory: "You will not find a better $10 burger and fries," Yelp.com notes.

Six months into his tenure, President Obama offered his most prominent statement on race and criminal justice on behalf of a wealthy Ivy League buddy. 

Too bad these newsmakers plan to hoist suds at the White House instead. In an impromptu press conference last week, President Obama publicized the invite, noting that "some say" he shouldn't comment on local matters, but that race and controversial policing are "part of my portfolio."

To be fair, it's been a century since Theodore Roosevelt dubbed the presidency a "bully pulpit." Oval Office occupants routinely speak on matters beyond their strict constitutional purview. What vexes is that a leader bound to address racial profiling, "stupid" arrests, and a flawed criminal justice system chose a case so undeserving of presidential comment. Presume that Prof. Gates was unjustly taken into custody. Is anyone in America better protected against wrongful prosecution than a tenured Harvard professor of any color?

"You have no idea who you're messing with," Gates reportedly said before being cuffed. He understood what it means to be Ivy in America. His inconsequential arrest provoked breathless national coverage, dominating several news cycles. Though no charges were filed, the White House press corps queried the president!

Thus six months into his tenure, President Obama offered his most prominent statement on race and criminal justice on behalf of a wealthy Ivy League buddy. Were that all, the president might have avoided burnishing his reputation for elitism. Last week, I defended him against that charge, noting that he was asked about the Gates incident. Notably "stupid" is his deliberately prolonging the controversy—beyond even a second press conference—for a round of beers and several more news cycles.

President Obama deems this "a teachable moment." In fact, Glenn Loury is correct when he notes that "the contretemps shed no relevant light on the plight of the millions of black men on society’s margins who bear the brunt of police scrutiny." Innocents among them remain jailed and without any prominent advocate in American politics. How politically conservative is a president who defends only esteemed, nationally known professors? Change on this issue requires advocacy in cases where misconduct by police or prosecutors gravely wrongs those without power.

There are literally hundreds of cases where innocent, disproportionally black prisoners would benefit from a presidential mention, never mind two press conferences and a happy hour. Admittedly, most would prove more politically fraught than defending an elderly Ivory Tower star: wrongly arrest and release a black man who happens to be a Harvard professor and the national press corps writes searching pieces on race in America; wrongly imprison for years on end a black man who happens to be working class and without celebrity, and the national press corps continues to mostly ignore a criminal justice system that routinely convicts innocent people.

This culture isn't President Obama's creation, but he is due blame if he doesn't challenge it. The "bully pulpit" is one tool. The power to pardon is another. So is control of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the nomination of federal judges—matters far more core to the president's "portfolio" than focusing more attention on the nation's latest Rorschach test. Even if lip service is all the White House is offering, can't it be on behalf of people wrongly imprisoned due to "testimony" by police dogs, or against prosecutors who block access to potentially exculpatory evidence, or even for as uncontroversial a cause as preserving DNA evidence?

Or perhaps the most effective advocacy requires a human name and face. Might I suggest Cory Maye? Home alone with his infant daughter, the African American man awoke one night to loud pounding on his front door. Terrified at who might be outside, he ran to his bedroom, loaded a handgun, crouched next to his little girl hoping the noise would subside, and listened in horror as he heard men creeping toward the bedroom. "Someone kicked open the bedroom door," Radley Balko wrote in his definitive narrative of the case. "Maye fired into the darkness, squeezing the trigger three times. Maye says the next thing he remembers is hearing someone scream, 'Police! Police! You just shot an officer!' He then dropped his gun, slid it away from his body, and surrendered." Tragically, the officer died.

Though there is evidence corroborating Cory Maye's version of events, police disputed it, and at trial a white jury in a Mississippi town known for anti-black racial prejudice convicted him of murder, sending him to death row. An appeal resulted in a modified sentence—life in prison for a man without any prior criminal record who plausibly claims he had no idea it was a police officer bursting into his room. Maye's appeal was argued before the Mississippi Court of Appeals on June 4, 2009; a decision has not been announced.

This case is just one example of a widely used, decidedly "stupid" police tactic that too often results in tragedy. Others abound. Quite possibly, there is an even better case President Obama could raise, or a police practice he could challenge, or a wrongfully convicted inmate he could pardon.

What should be beyond dispute is that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the wrong man for a president to pontificate on from the bully pulpit, that the national press corps is wrong to pay such disproportionate attention to possibly wronged folks just because they happen to inhabit the Ivy League, and that the American public feeds both of these wrongheaded tendencies by obsessing over cases involving well known elites. Meanwhile we ignore cases like the ones Mr. Balko covers, though they are infinitely more harmful to the people affected, and corrosive to notions of fairness in a democracy.

Apportioning blame is less important here than recognizing how backward it is to frame our political discourse almost exclusively around celebrity—as if Professor Gates, Michael Richards, and O.J. Simpson are the best lenses through which to view race in America, and cable news producers the best authorities for our curriculum of teachable moments.

Unique among Americans, the President of the United States can shift the national conversation, focusing attention on lesser known cases that deserve greater engagement. We'll hear scarcely a peep about them this week: their participants are not invited to White House beer night. And in the future? That depends on citizens who tire of celebrity, or political courage and leadership that President Obama lauds in theory but hasn't as yet demonstrated.

Conor Friedersdorf writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.