Race debate unlikely to end with ‘beer summit’

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Beer summitA national furor over race relations paused Thursday as President Barack Obama, in a shady spot on the White House lawn near the Rose Garden, sat down for beers with a black Harvard professor and the white police officer who arrested him two weeks ago.

For the two men who raised mugs of beer with the president, both dressed in suits and sitting stiffly in what was meant to be a casual moment, the discussion of race and policing will go on.

The arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police, said afterward that he and the professor, African-American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., had set plans to talk further in a more private setting.

But for Obama, the most anticipated happy hour in recent memory threatened to be little more than a timeout in an ongoing debate over racial profiling and other racially charged issues. Obama had uncharacteristically helped to escalate the national debate by wading into the issue from the White House, saying that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in arresting the black professor on disorderly conduct charges at his own home.

It was the most overt involvement yet by the country’s first black president in a racially charged matter, and Obama has tried gradually over the past week to ease the controversy — most notably by saying he regretted his choice of words and setting up what came to known as a “beer summit.”

Thursday’s get-together had been described by the White House as a “teachable moment,” and it seemed designed the defuse the matter — or, at least, to make it look defused.

A small group of cameras and reporters was permitted to witness the meeting only for about 30 seconds and from about 50 feet away, transmitting to the world a snapshot of Obama, in shirt sleeves, seated at an oval table with the now-famous adversaries.

If there was a lesson being taught, there was no way for the nation to hear it.

Gates and Crowley appeared to talk seriously, and at one point Obama gave a hearty laugh. Joining the three — and creating an even balance of two blacks and two whites at the table — was Vice President Joe Biden, in shirtsleeves and drinking a non-alcoholic beer.

The two adversaries both emerged later to express appreciation for Obama, even if they did not necessarily agree on the circumstances that led Crowley to handcuff Gates at his home on July 16 on charges that were later dropped.

Crowley said later that he exchanged no apologies with Gates for the arrest. It was not known whether Gates offered to relent on his threat of a lawsuit, or whether the group even agreed on what role, if any, race played in the episode.

Crowley called the discussion “cordial and productive” but declined to offer specifics.

Gates posted a lengthy statement on the Web site he edits, theroot.com, saying, “We’ve learned that we can have our differences without demonizing one another.”

Obama said in a written statement that he was thankful to Gates and Crowley for “joining me at the White House this evening for a friendly, thoughtful conversation.”

Obama has suffered in public opinion surveys because of his entry into the incident, which came when he criticized the Cambridge police during a televised, prime-time news conference from the White House.

A new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that, overall, 41 percent of Americans disapproved of Obama’s handling of the situation, while fewer than three in 10 approved.

More ominous for the White House was the Pew finding that Obama’s job approval rating sank last week among whites as the Gates episode received saturation news coverage. His approval rating fell from 53 percent last Wednesday and Thursday to 46 percent by last weekend.

The episode also had proven politically challenging for Obama because he had sided so quickly with Gates in connecting the arrest to the long-running debate over racial profiling, even while police disputed that race had been a factor.

African-American leaders spoke out immediately in support of the president’s initial comments, expressing appreciation that he was willing to dive into the racial-profiling issue. But police unions were equally vocal, expressing anger at Obama’s statement and arguing that Crowley, who was responding to a 911 call, had not acted on the basis of Gates’ race.

Both constituencies are politically important for Obama, and the White House has carefully courted both.

An “after-action report” posted on the Web site of the Fraternal Order of Police by the group’s executive director shows that the White House worked quickly in the aftermath of Obama’s initial remarks July 22 to minimize the damage in the eyes of law enforcement.

The White House asked the union to withhold criticism and alerted it that “all other police groups had committed to remain silent on the issue,” the report says.

The Fraternal Order of Police criticized Obama anyway, and executive director Jim Pasco said Thursday that, with or without the beer summit, “no reasonable person” could view Crowley’s behavior as being related to race.

If Obama sees the beer summit as a form of closure for an unpleasant controversy, he could disappoint black voters, his most loyal constituency.

“The great fear is that … he got so much blowback and now he’ll shut up,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Los Angeles civil rights activist who hosts a weekly radio show on African-American issues. “The fear is that he’ll never say another thing about anything that could be construed as a racial minefield.”

(c) 2009, Tribune Co. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.