WASHINGTON -- While admitting he was not familiar with all the facts in the case, President Obama on Wednesday took the side of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., saying the Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" in arresting him at his home.
Obama's animated remarks -- punctuated by some humor -- came in reply to my question about the arrest of the noted African American by cops answering a call about a possible break-in. It turned out that Gates was at his own home, and a dust-up happened after the police pressed him for identification.
"What does that incident say to you? And what does it say about race relations in America," I asked the president.
Obama, a graduate of Harvard Law School, said he was a friend of Gates, one of the nation's best-known African-American studies scholars, "so I may be a little biased here."
He reminded everyone that as a member of the Illinois state Senate, he worked on a racial profiling bill "because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society."
As for Gates, "I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. 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, and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."
The facts are not all known. Gates was not arrested for being in his home, but on a disorderly conduct charge for allegedly mouthing off to the police.
Obama, in a lighter moment, imagined what would happen if, like Gates, he "jimmied his way" into his house.
"I mean, if I was trying to jigger into -- well, I guess this is my house now, so -- it probably wouldn't happen.
"But let's say my old house in Chicago -- here I'd get shot."