Cold Beer Could Tamp Down Uproar Over Arrest

President Obama, professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley are expected to meet for a beer at the White House tomorrow. A White House spokesman says the president wants to take the heat out of the controversy sparked by the arrest of the Harvard black scholar.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne in Kabul.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington. Good morning. Two weeks after they met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Crowley will meet again. This time the professor and the policeman will be joined by President Obama, who invited them to share a beer with him at the White House. Tomorrow night's meeting comes after the president himself said the officer acted stupidly and then revised his remarks. Let's get some analysis from NPR's Juan Williams, who's in our studios.

Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How is the president speaking out on this issue different from the way that he's normally dealt with questions of race?

WILLIAMS: He normally avoids them. And normally when he has to deal with them, does so in such a way as to present himself as a racial healer, the person who can be the arbiter, the fair judge, when it comes to questions of racial division in American society.

INSKEEP: I don't want to try to crawl too far into the mind of someone who's not in the conversation here, but what do you think would have prompted the president to lose or slip even for a moment from the discipline that he's famous for in his public statement?

WILLIAMS: I think two things were at play. One is that he saw it as an opportunity to remind people that he had worked on issues of racial profiling while he was a state senator in Illinois. And secondly, that he knows Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard and wanted to say, you know, he's my friend and so I identify with my friend.

He went overboard, of course, in the use of stupidly.

INSKEEP: Which is something that he had now kind of tried to clean up a little bit.

WILLIAMS: He's tried to clean up. He's come out twice now to say that he didn't mean to malign Sergeant Crowley or the police department without understanding that he had injected himself into a larger racial argument in which it seemed as if he had played some kind of race card before he had the facts.

INSKEEP: I wanted to get into a couple of other heads, Juan. Yours and mine. You're black. I'm white.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: We're both citizens, which is really the point here. Why do you think we're still talking about this? Why is it this compels so many of us?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that two things are at play. One is that he's the first African-American president. And he has managed to avoid getting stuck in a box by people who would want to make him out to be the black president. He has been the president of the United States. And this is the first time that he has slipped in such a way as to betray some kind of loyalty on racial terms.

And the second thing is to say that there's a real issue when it comes to racial profiling, real issues of racial tension in American society. And this was being used by many people who want to bring attention to that subject. They called it a teaching moment.

But the problem is you can't have a teaching moment if it's based on a lie. If, in fact, you know, there really wasn't any racial profiling involved. And so suddenly you've got this large static of people saying, wait, this is not a racial profiling versus those who are saying, yes, it is an issue of racial profiling.

INSKEEP: What you're pointing out is in some sense the subtlety of this - this was not as severe as some other incidents we could certainly point to in the past. There was some kind of incident. There wasn't a guy breaking into Gates' home. There was ultimately an arrest. But in the end it was less severe than some other incidents we could point to.

WILLIAMS: No doubt about it. I mean, if you were to look at, let's say, the Amadou Diallo case, where the police, in fact, were looking for a suspect and profiled him and he's reaching for a wallet and then shoot him, well, that's a lot different than killing a man. The big difference is here in so many ways a class difference.

You could argue this is a town-gown problem between the police in Cambridge and Harvard University. Remember that Professor Gates quickly pulls out his Harvard ID. And the second thing to say is, remember, the governor in Massachusetts is black. The mayor of Cambridge is black. The president of the United States is black. So all of a sudden you have a different kind of racial equation where the power and upper class status attaches to the black man, not to the white man.

INSKEEP: What's the history that comes into play in an encounter like this? We're not just thinking about the precise facts on the ground as best we can figure them out. We're also thinking about the things that have come before.

WILLIAMS: We are. And what you - when you look at the history here, you're looking at history of racial profiling in the society. And we know that this is an issue - statistically blacks being stopped more often. But it's particularly a problem for poor blacks and high, of course, incarceration rates of blacks. Arguments over three strikes and you're out, arguments over sentencing procedures. All of this is part of this larger mix.

To my mind, the problem is that people want to make this the platform for that discussion, but the platform itself is faulty because the story, the narrative, just doesn't hold…

INSKEEP: The facts are disputed.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, the facts are in dispute.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned a couple of times that people have tried to use this as a teaching moment and you're not sure if they're teaching the right lesson or if they have the right facts. What does this lesson teach you?

WILLIAMS: Well, for me it's one of those episodes where it seems to me to be constantly new lessons in American race relations, because it is such a different and unique situation. People want to make it as in episodes that have come before. But in fact this is fresh and new and different. It speaks about class. It speaks about power. And yet people are reluctant to look at the facts and would prefer to deal with things as they may have understood them in past or historical sequences. And then they open themselves to the charge that they're worsening race relations by making the facts fit their predisposition or fit the case they want to make, whether they are black or white.

INSKEEP: NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Thanks for coming by.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

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