Obama stirs racial passions in Harvard case
By Jason Szep
BOSTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plunged his presidency into a charged racial debate and set off a firestorm in one of America's most liberal bastions by siding with a black Harvard scholar who accuses police of racism.
Saying he was unaware of "all the facts" but that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, "acted stupidly" in their arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Obama whipped up emotions on both sides of an issue that threatens to open old wounds in America.
His comments marked his biggest foray into the hot-button issue of race since taking office in January, and underline how racial issues remain very much alive despite advances embodied by his election as the first black U.S. president.
"Unfortunately, the racial divide is still there. It's still very raw. I think he was trying to let the majority of non-minority Americans have a sense of what it is like to a black or Latino," said Boston University professor of politics Thomas Whalen.
But many in Massachusetts said he crossed a line by passing judgment on police while acknowledging he did not have all the facts. Online polls in Massachusetts show strong support for the white arresting officer. A police union and his department's chief also came out strongly in his defense.
"Based on what I have seen and heard from the other officers, he maintained a professional decorum during the course of the entire situation and conducted himself in a professional manner," Cambridge Police Department Commissioner Robert Haas told a news conference.
Obama's comment stunned the city's policemen, Haas added. "They were very much deflated." He said he has appointed a panel to review Gates' arrest.
Others questioned whether Obama should have so strongly backed Gates, a friend, over the police without knowing fully what took place.