The 'Beer Summit'

Our View: What We Hope Happens When Cop, Professor And President Meet

July 30, 2009

It is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated malt beverage in history. This evening, if all goes as planned, President Barack Obama will welcome Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley to the White House for a beer-lubricated fence-mending session.

No need here to go over the details of the altercation between Mr. Gates and Mr. Crowley, which have been broadcast, printed and blogged a million times over. But here's how we hope tonight's conversation might play out:

Mr. Obama: "Welcome to the Oval, gentlemen. Have a drink, have a seat, and let's get down to it. The reason I wanted to bring you here is that although we talk about race a lot, we rarely converse. You two men - a scholar of race relations and an officer trained in diversity - probably know this better than most. The fact that this incident happened to you two, in particular, tells me how important it is to have this discussion now."

Mr. Gates: "Thank you, Mr. President. It's important to realize that when this incident occurred, I wasn't thinking of myself as a scholar but primarily as a man who, like anyone else, wished to be left alone in his own home. Whose legitimacy in being there was being challenged. Did that get me riled? Yes. But I didn't threaten anyone."

Mr. Crowley: "Thanks for inviting me, sir. As you know, cops need to make judgment calls all the time. The wrong call can cost you your life. I can't assume that the person in front of me, even if he's five-foot-seven, isn't carrying a concealed gun, or that there aren't three other people upstairs, out of sight. When you start yelling at a police officer, the situation is unlikely to end well for you. I think Professor Gates understands that."

Mr. Obama: "A fair point. Of course, as you're well aware, there is a lot of justifiable suspicion, even anger, among African-Americans over their history of treatment by the police. But there's nothing to be gained in getting mad at a cop - even in your own home. Wouldn't you agree, Skip?"

Mr. Gates: "I was tired, I was frustrated. I was not in the mood to explain myself or justify myself. And it was evident to me that this was a clear example of racial profiling."

Mr. Crowley: "Professor, with due respect, that was your assumption, and in a way I can't blame you for it. But can you see that your assuming things about me - not knowing me - is kind of the same thing you accuse me of?"

Mr. Obama: "All of us carry the baggage of assumptions with us, don't we? That's what makes this conversation so hard. The officer who assumes a black man in a mostly white neighborhood represents a threat; the black man who assumes that in any confrontation with the police, his race is a factor. And, honesty requires me to add, the president who assumes he understands a situation even before having all the facts."

Mr. Crowley: "Maybe I should have walked away. But part of a police officer's responsibility is to establish order, which requires being respected. You shouldn't have yelled at me and insulted me for trying to do my job. Still, that probably wasn't grounds for arrest."

Mr. Gates: "You should have walked away. You wanted to show me who was boss. But I made assumptions about you that made sense in the context of both my personal experience and my understanding of social history. Perhaps that wasn't fair."

Mr. Obama: "Refill those glasses, gentlemen?"

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