John Ibbitson

Obama's inter-racial picnic: Is it a way out?

US President Barack Obama waves after addreessing the NAACP 100th Anniversary convention in New York, July 16, 2009.

US President Barack Obama waves after addreessing the NAACP 100th Anniversary convention in New York, July 16, 2009.

The sharing of a beer reveals a president stumbling badly and attempting to recover on an issue that he previously tried to avoid

John Ibbitson

Washington — From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Weather permitting – the forecast calls for mostly sunny, chance of thunder storms, high of 32 degrees – Barack Obama will crack open a couple cold ones Thursday with two guests: America's most eminent and most aggrieved African-American scholar and the policeman who arrested him.

Most people by now have heard of how Sergeant James Crowley confronted Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, in his own home, after Cambridge police received word of suspicious characters possibly involved in a break-in.

Mr. Gates's behaviour prompted an arrest, quickly dropped, for disorderly conduct. Mr. Obama's comment that police had “acted stupidly” turned a controversy into a frenzy, with the President publicly regretting his remarks.

“The President wants to continue to take down the temperature a bit,” press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday, saying the gathering around a picnic table outside the Oval Office was “an effort and an opportunity to have greater communication, get to know each other, and step back from the circumstances that brought everybody together over the past many days.

“But there's no formal agenda other than cold beer.”

The White House picnic also reveals a president stumbling badly and attempting to recover on an issue that he had previously tried to avoid: the never-healing wound of race.

Race is to America's social discourse as language is to Canada's, multiplied by 10. One out of every nine African-American men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars. Almost 4 per cent of the Latino population is incarcerated. Racial minorities chronically lag in income, education, quality of housing and every other social indicator.

Yet many people viewed Mr. Obama's election as the birth of a post-racial America, a testament to the slow but steady growth of an African-American middle class at least partially integrated within the broader community.

Mr. Obama has, until now, handled this explosive issue with masterful sensitivity. His speech and comments in the wake of revelations of incendiary rhetoric from his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, defused the issue for all but the most partisan voters.

Throughout the first six months of his presidency, Mr. Obama mostly avoided direct references to his race. He distanced himself from his Attorney-General when Eric Holder declared that the United States was a “nation of cowards,” saying that would not have been his choice of words.

Earlier this month, however, the President gave a stem-winder of a speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NAACP.

Speaking of all those who had struggled to advance the cause of civil rights, he proclaimed: “Because of their efforts, I made a little trip to Springfield, Ill., a couple years ago, where Lincoln once lived, and race riots once raged, and began the journey that has led me to be here tonight as the 44th President of the United States of America.”

He raised the roof in a way he hadn't since the election.

No one can know what was on the President's mind when he answered the question about Prof. Gates's arrest at last week's news conference.

“The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” he declared, adding, “there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that's just a fact.”

Except that it was anything but clear that Sgt. Crowley had acted stupidly. The officer conducts racial-sensitivity training at a local police academy. The White House had committed the unforgivable: the President had spoken before he knew the facts.

Interestingly, it was a reporter from Chicago who asked the question. And Mr. Obama first began developing his political skills while working as a community organizer in Chicago's South Side.

Perhaps the question, and the incident itself, evoked those Chicago years, and the years before them, when the President struggled with his own identity and with the complexities of African America, which informed his first book, Dreams from My Father .

In any case, the President clearly realized he had overstepped, admitting Friday, “I could've calibrated those words differently,” and describing the whole affair as “a teachable moment.”

What it might be teaching the President is that even he can put his foot in it. And that it is never a good idea for the President to wade, ill-informed, into a charged controversy rooted in race.



When 10% of the Black Male population is incarcerated, its time for a gigantic "wake up call" in the United States.

Not just the United States but also Canada, Australia, Great Britain and even NZ where the black population are incarcerated at alarming levels.

200 years ago, Britain also had a "tough on crime" "lock em up" and "throw a way the key", "mandatory sentences" that were all very popular politically but socially destructive.

The most experienced judges around all talk with great respect about the principles of restorative justice, that's the same sort of system that is used in indigenous communities where everyone has to live together, its a solution that works very effectively.

Those same communities have social systems that work, that provide support, hat provide social parachutes, social safety nets that work, while in the big cities like Toronto, the safety nets are increasingly being destroyed with the result of an ever increasing jail population.

The governments of today, fail to add up the cost of incarceration against the cost of installing social safety nets, reforms to social policy that would dramatically reduce the prison population and, the COST of crime.

Don't expect any reasonable logic to rise to the surface anytime soon, those logical and proven ideas are just contrary to the ideas that win votes, they are also contrary to the long term economic interests of Canada.

More examples of how Mr. Stephen Harper's delinquent approach to the responsibilities of being the Prime Minister of Canada, he simply has someone, anyone, else, make announcements that have any liability, and, if they 'don't fly', he simply fires them, and encourages the entire rest of the world, to form conclusions that have absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Harper.

What a pity that Mr. Harper did not have the convictions of Obama who simply sucks it up and admits when he made a mistake, and its not that often that Obama makes a boo-boo, that can't be said for Mr. Harper and his government.

I don't see the liberals showing any promise of providing more integrity of government.

Until such time as another Trudeau volunteers for the job of prime minister, we can expect to see more of the same of very corrupt Canada.

Canada, a country with a third world justice system that gives men, less legal rights than those given to Saddam Hussein before they decapitated him at the end of rope.