President Obama: The Presumption of Prejudice

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Without question, there is still racism and other ethnic discrimination in the United States, and there will be for some time to come. Prejudice dies hard.

Black Americans have certainly done their part, heroically, to make their case and for that effort deserve, at the very least, the respect of those for whom a belief in equality isn’t second nature.

For the most part, equality has become a technical reality. Having accomplished those objectives, we’re now in that awkward, unfortunately long-term endgame for when people need to go beyond accepting the fact of equality, to not recognizing the differences between our people which some once thought made discrimination appropriate, even necessary.

It’s a process that takes time, understanding and patience, and that often requires subtle, but nonetheless exceptional efforts by both sides of the problem.

Unfortunately, in a press conference yesterday that was supposed to be about healthcare reform and the economy, President Obama chose to enter the fray over the arrest of noted scholar Louis Gates, Jr. in Boston. While admittedly not knowing all the facts of the situation, he nevertheless expressed his opinion that Boston Police – including the one of three officers on the scene who is also black – behaved stupidly when they arrested his friend and, let’s say it, fellow black person.

That the President would even comment on a local police matter is odd. That he would risk diverting the attention of the media from the primary objectives of his press conference is bad politics and frankly disrespectful to those major issues he was there, in prime time, to argue. More to the point, that he would express a critical opinion about police behavior without knowing all the facts is, almost by definition, discriminatory in and of itself, and sets a bad example for Americans of all persuasions who are doing their best, in their everyday behavior, to put an end to inequality.

Had a passerby seen two white men apparently breaking into a house, would he or she have called the police? Had Professor Gates been white, would the President have commented about the event at a prime time press conference? No. What President Obama did was act on the presumption of prejudice, which may be understandable, but is also unfortunate and tells us something interesting about how he sees the world.


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