Obama could have delivered another thoughtful speech on race. Instead, he chose to teach this lesson by example. He knows, I think, that the hardest and most important racial conversations aren't delivered in political speeches or cable TV gabfests. They happen face to face, between people who know each other, who have experiences to relate and issues that divide them.
America's conversation on race, continued:
"If the professor had been white, he wouldn't have been arrested."
"Bull. The racist professor deserved to be locked up."
"Black men are victimized by white cops all the time."
"Black people have a chip on their shoulders. Look, we just elected a black president."
"Yeah, and the racists keep giving him a hard time."
"Stop playing the race card."
"Let's talk about the legacy of slavery."
"No. Let's talk about how affirmative action is unfair to working class whites."
"No. You shut up."
America's "conversation on race" has been going on for almost 400 years, and sometimes it seems doomed to failure. But we keep coming back for more.
The problem is the most contentious participants want to have different conversations on race. Conservatives roll their eyes when some black activist demands attention be paid to whatever injustice is in the news that day. Get over it, they say. Jim Crow is dead. Did you notice we have a black president?
But it's conservatives who made a big deal of the plight of the white firefighters denied promotion because New Haven officials threw out an exam because no black applicants had passed. Conservatives relish any opportunity to ridicule angry black activists like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright, especially if they can be tied to the black president they also dislike.
And it's conservatives who kept alive the story of a minor fracas near Harvard Square between Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge police - with help from editors and TV news producers who don't consider health care reform sexy enough for extended discussion.
Barack Obama, of course, also kept the story alive, muddling his own agenda and hurting his own popularity, at least temporarily. Why and how he did that are questions his biographers may long debate.
When he criticized Cambridge police for arresting Gates, Obama broke two of the rules that have guided his political actions for the last two years. He stepped right into the kind of culture wars battle he has carefully avoided, and he got sucked into a media firestorm he could have easily danced around. Why did this most disciplined president let the last question of a long press conference send him veering so far off course?
There are lots of theories. He was tired and overconfident and he let his friendship with Gates cloud his judgment. Some speculate that he knew the health care pitch wasn't working so he wanted to change the subject.
Or maybe Obama simply felt so strongly about the issue involved that he ignored his political instincts.
Obama worked on racial profiling in the Illinois Legislature, so he knows the policy side of the argument, even if his knowledge of the facts of this particular case was, as he conceded, limited.
But it's also personal. "I can recite the usual litany of petty slights than during my 45 years have been directed my way," Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," citing "security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores" and "police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason."
Millions of Americans fired off opinions on the Gates-Crowley incident without waiting on the facts, and their reactions, like Obama's, were invariably colored by their own experiences. The knees who have had run-ins with police they considered unreasonable, jerked in favor of Gates. Police, or friends and relatives of police, found their knees instinctively jerking in favor of Crowley.
If you are the personal friend of either of the participants - and both Gates and Crowley have lots of friends here in Massachusetts - of course you'll take sides. Even Crowley acknowledged that Obama's initial sympathy for Gates was understandable. "I guess a friend of mine would support my position, too," he said.
While it was uncharacteristic for as careful a speaker as Obama to use as inappropriate a word as "stupidly," what he did post-gaffe is more interesting. First, he called Crowley, which is typical for him. Obama called Nancy Reagan within minutes of ad-libbing a line that poked fun at her in his first post-election press conference.
Picking up the phone in cases like these is smart politics - everyone is flattered by a call from the White House - that not all politicians have mastered. George W. Bush made a star out of anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan simply be refusing to talk with her.
I don't know if the invitation to share a beer was planned or improvised. Sgt. Crowley was in a Cambridge bar when Obama reached him by phone, so beer may have simply come up naturally. Politically, the invitation can be second-guessed. Without that angle, people might have run out of things to say about the incident by Monday. Obama's invite gave the story legs for at least another week.
But Obama likes to take the long view and resists governing by news cycle. And while he sees the political value of keeping race on the back-burner, he feels a personal obligation to help move the nation forward on an issue that he's carried since the day he was born.
Racial reconciliation, Obama likes to say, "is in my DNA." Bringing his own racial halves together, as well as his own large multi-ethnic family, is the work of his life. So when Obama sees a "teachable moment," he takes it, whether it's stopping in Ghana at the port where thousands of slaves began their perilous journeys or weighing in on racial profiling.
What Obama chose to teach is interesting. He could have delivered another thoughtful speech on race, as he did last year in Philadelphia, but he didn't. He could have introduced legislation on police profiling. He could have called for a new "national conversation on race," as Bill Clinton did.
Instead, Obama chose to teach this lesson by example. He knows, I think, that the hardest and most important racial conversations aren't delivered in political speeches or cable TV gabfests. They happen face to face, between people who know each other, who have experiences to relate and issues that divide them.
Those conversations work better when no microphone is present, when participants are free to speak candidly and listen carefully. If we want to improve race relations, Obama said without spelling it out, start by sitting around a table in a comfortable spot - like the Rose Garden, for instance. And sometimes it helps if there's beer on the table.
Sure, it was a photo op, with the political goal of recovering from the press conference gaffe and closing the book on the Gates/Crowley story. But Obama was also trying to show, not just tell, how Americans should handle racial conflict, and both Crowley and Gates played their parts well.
Just as Obama explicitly rejects the notion that his election marked a "post-racial" America, he never pretended sharing a beer at the White House would, by itself, solve anything. It was just one among many conversations about race - one that appeared a lot more civil and constructive than the other shoutfests this media firestorm has inspired.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.