Barack Obama’s remark sparks racial row

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama has stirred a firestorm by abandoning his usual avoidance of controversial racial issues to say police who arrested a black scholar acted “stupidly.”

On television news shows and blogs on Thursday, people asked whether Obama erred on Wednesday when he responded

to a reporter’s question about the arrest of a black professor, a longtime friend, without knowing the details of the case.

Henry Louis Gates, a preeminent scholar of African and African-American studies at the prestigious Harvard University, was arrested on July 16 by Cambridge police while attempting to enter his own home. The professor was reportedly trying to force open his jammed front door when a neighbour called the police, believing the house was being robbed.

Accounts of what happened next vary. Gates says he was the victim of a racist arrest, but police sergeant James Crowley, who is white, says he only arrested the scholar after he became disorderly and abusive.

Asked about the case on Wednesday, Obama acknowledged “not having been there, and not seeing all the facts.” “But, I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” Obama said.

The arrest, and the media frenzy over the story and Obama’s comments, illustrate how race relations remain a delicate issue in the United States, despite Obama’s historic election as the country’s first African-American president.

Obama tried to distance himself from racial controversy during his presidential campaign, but his comments have thrown him back into the centre of the passionate race debate.

Crowley, who describes himself as an Obama supporter, said the president was “way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts.” The police officer said he had no idea whether Gates was a homeowner or a criminal when he arrived on the scene and asked the professor to identify himself.

The scholar, Crowley said, responded to his request with invectives, including insults about the police sergeant’s mother, prompting his arrest on disorderly behaviour charges, which have since been dropped.

Crowley described Gates’ accusations of racism as “ridiculous” and said he had no intention of apologising because “I’ve done nothing wrong.” Cambridge police commissioner Robert Haas offered support for Crowley, saying he “acted in a way that is consistent with his training... I do not believe that his actions in any way were racially motivated.”

In an interview with ABC television, Obama expressed surprise at the firestorm sparked by his remarks. “I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement because I think it was a pretty straight forward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home.

“I think that I have

extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do,” Obama added. “And

my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr Gates and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed.