Podium not a blackboard, Mr. President: Barack Obama, last week, at the daily White House Press Briefing where he clarified his comments on the arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates. The president said he wants incident can be a "teachable moment." Do Americans need to be thought of as school children?
Despite (or perhaps because of) President Obama's rare White House press room visit Friday, the racial flap involving Prof. Henry "Skip" Gates and Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley continued to roll along through the weekend.
Monday saw the release of the original 911 call from a Gates neighbor and the police tapes of Sgt. Crowley calling into the police headquarters. Two interesting facts came from this release -- upon which both sides can claim some support to their view of events: First, 911 caller Lucia Whalen did not describe the race of the "two gentlemen" that she saw trying to gain entry into Gates' house. That fact undermines Gates -- and his supporters' -- claim that the incident was one of racial profiling from the very start. Secondly, Whalen noted twice that the two men had "suitcases" on the porch and that they might live in the house. That's a fact one would hope would be in Crowley's head once he approached the house. It doesn't necessarily excuse any language or actions Gates may have exhibited, but at least the police should have known that the entire issue was unclear from the beginning.
Why is this information important? Because it sort of undermines the president's notion that the Gates-Crowley encounter can become some "teachable moment" for the entire country. While not as bad as declaring that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly," the "teachable moment" language is no less fraught with certain assumptions that President Obama might not wish to be associated with.
From Gates' (and his supporters' point of view), the "teachable moment" is that America needs to "learn" that black men and other minorities suffer from racial profiling. But as the 911 tape shows, the lessons that might end up being learned could be much more complex -- and have absolutely nothing to do with racial profiling. It seems quite clear that the caller went out of her way not to describe the men at the door in a racial manner. Indeed, the 911 dispatcher finally had to drag out of her that one of them "looked Latino." (And, another point: It was learned that Lucia Whalen herself was, broadly speaking, "not white" -- of Portuguese background, in fact -- also undermining the claim that she was another white racist).
From the perspective of the cops (and their supporters), the "teachable moment" is that they have tough jobs to do and they require the cooperation of good citizens to do those jobs. A university professor seemingly going nuts in a verbally abusive manner doesn't make that job easier. That Crowley asked for more cops to show up actually gives some credence to his belief that Gates was becoming a problem. If he had been a garden-variety stereotypical "racist cop," Crowley likely could have subdued Gates by himself without too much trouble -- and a certain amount of force. Instead, he ended up bringing colleagues who would assess Gates's behavior in similar ways that Crowley saw it.
So, is it really a "teachable moment" if different parts of the country continue to "learn" very different lessons?
But ultimately, the real problem is that the phrase "teachable moment" speaks to a certain elitist mindset that is all-too-common across the political spectrum. The supposition is that the public is little more than elementary school students who are too dumb to understand big issues. Conservatives often seek "teachable moments" to explain aspects of their agenda to the public. Democrats do the same -- either, like this, with race, or on something else that speaks to their message.
Perhaps if the partisans on all sides stopped treating the public like children, maybe they -- the partisans -- might learn something themselves. After all, so far, the person who has most had to absorb the impact of a "teachable moment" is actually the president of the United States. Though he never used the words "I'm sorry," the truth is he had to do a major mea culpa after his performance in last week's press conference.
Consider that your teachable moment, Mr. President: Maybe you should just preside over big policy issues instead of weighing in on local police matters.