WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama admitted Friday that he hadn't helped calm a racially charged debate by saying that police acted "stupidly" for arresting a prominent African-American professor in his own home.
Obama called Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley Friday afternoon and said he should've used different words when he was asked about the arrest during a White House news conference two days earlier.
The president stopped short of saying he apologized to Crowley, and White House aides refused to characterize the call as an apology.
Obama clearly wanted to signal, however, that he knew that he'd jumped clumsily into the controversy and perhaps made it worse.
"Because this has been ratcheting up — and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up — I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically," Obama said during a surprise visit to the White House briefing room.
"I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sergeant Crowley."
Obama later telephoned Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates, who said that he was a victim of racial profiling when he was arrested at his own home on charges of "disorderly conduct."
Gates was detained for four hours for what policed called "loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space," an apparently angry response to being asked to prove he was in his own home. Police went there after reports of a break in — Gates had found his door stuck after a trip overseas, then pried it open.
"I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well," Obama said.
However, the strong initial reaction from the nation's first African-American president underscored anew that his election didn't heal old wounds, and that his words could have great and perhaps unintended impact.
While African-Americans with a long history of mistreatment at the hands of some police applauded a powerful voice on their side, police organizations found Obama's words wrongfully damning to a colleague.
"It's an object lesson on how prickly and sensitive the racial high act is in talking about these issues," said Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor and director of the University of Florida's Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations.
"It's hard to have a conversation. We're talking, but we're not having a conversation. If nothing else, this should prove we're not in a post-racial state. We haven't been able to click our heels three times after January and enter a post-racial state."
Obama said the media frenzy that followed his Wednesday evening was "a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America." He noted that, "because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues."
He went out of his way to laud Crowley, saying, "These are two decent people" and suggesting that the tensions in the arrest weren't his fault. "Even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African-American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding," Obama said.
He also said that Crowley had suggested the three men have a beer together at the White House. Obama later called Gates and invited him to join them for that casual meeting at some later date.
"We're very happy that the president saw fit to call him," said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest organization of law-enforcement officers.
He said of Obama's ability to talk in an illuminating fashion about race that "generally speaking he does a great job" but that "I think in this particular instance he regretted the way he handled it. . . . He's the president of the United States now, everything that he comments on has tremendous impact and sees the reverberations of his remarks."
Pasco, who doesn't think Gates was a victim of racial profiling, said: "This really was not the time or the place for the important debate people were trying to have."
Obama said he hoped the brouhaha could serve a useful purpose by stirring a more thoughtful talk about race.
"My hope is that . . . this ends up being what's called a teachable moment, where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity," he said.
Even as he acknowledged he made things worse by saying Crowley and police acted stupidly, he defended his right to speak out.
"The fact this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that, you know, race is still a troubling aspect of our society. Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio."
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009