Obama flunks his “teachable moment”

We all want a president who takes the time to hear about and understand the everyday struggles we face. But that is exactly what the president failed to do when he took up the issue of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a Cambridge police officer.

Rather than use a reporter’s query about Gates’ arrest as an opportunity to discuss the issues of racial profiling and police harassment – a teachable moment, if you will – the president chose to close ranks around his friend.

Conventional wisdom suggests that President Barack Obama’s recent sojourn into Racial Profiling 101 was a political misstep that diverted attention and political capital from more pressing issues including health care reform. Many have chided the president for sticking his head into “local” business, when clearly his attention should be on more national and global issues. As polls suggest, many Americans feel that the president is trying to do too much, too soon, getting into a public spat with a local police force couldn’t have endeared him to many.

Effective national leadership is often about making the distinction between long-standing wars and the many battles and skirmishes that occur along the way. In the instance of “Gates-gate,” President Obama allowed his personal relationship with Gates to turn a long-term war – police harassment and racial profiling – into nothing more than a personal beef.

With the exception of his now famous “More Perfect Union” speech as candidate Obama, President Obama has stepped cautiously around race issues. He has chosen either silence in mixed company or, in other instances, has admonished black folk to take more responsibility. Thus, Obama’s passing commentary on the actions of the Cambridge police struck many as out of character. Always the pragmatist, Obama had to see the pitfalls of his speaking out in support his friend, even before the question was asked.

Some might see the issue of racial profiling as a minor concern, compared to the economy and international terrorism. But challenging racial profiling and police harassment is no more marginal to our national concerns than debate about same-sex marriage, in that these issues affect a significant portion of the populace. Indeed, the term ‘racial profiling’ is a bit of a misnomer as it suggests that such harassment only happens to people of color and immigrants, and that young folks, gay people and even poor white guys who live on the wrong side of the tracks aren’t also subject to such law enforcement practices.

And it’s not as if the president is indifferent to the issue. He did, for example, introduce legislation as a member of the Illinois state Senate to address racial profiling. Still, he has been largely silent on the recent police killing of Oscar Grant on a BART subway platform in Oakland, Calif. and Sean Bell’s shooting in Queens, N.Y. in November 2006.

The Gates arrest gave the president ample opportunity to stimulate a broad national discussion about police and community relations and the role of race and ethnicity when these relations become contentious. Such a conversation would have been a politically risky endeavor, no doubt. But discussion would have been far more valuable than a brewski photo-op, which is how the Gates case will likely be remembered.