US President Barack Obama has sought to defuse the first race row of his presidency, saying he regretted having said a white policeman acted “stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard professor.
Obama, the country’s first African American president, spoke on Friday during a surprise appearance before reporters in the White House barely two hours after angry police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, demanded he say he was sorry for linking the professor’s arrest to racial tensions.
Obama said he had phoned the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, and expressed regret for “an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sergeant Crowley specifically.”
“I could have calibrated those words differently and I told this to Sergeant Crowley,” he said.
The row, which has the potential to torpedo Obama’s carefully crafted image as the country’s first post-racial president, started last week when police briefly detained Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.
Gates was arrested after a neighbor saw him breaking into his house and mistakenly reported a burglary. An altercation followed in which Gates accused police of racist treatment and was charged with disorderly conduct.
Obama, who is a friend of Gates, made a rare foray into the political minefield of race relations, saying police acted “stupidly.”
He also raised the painful issue of police discrimination against non-whites.
It appeared that Obama’s conciliatory words did much to defuse the situation.
In a statement late on Friday, Cambridge police commissioner Robert Haas said Crowley was “so pleased to have had the opportunity to speak with the president.”
City officials and the police department were “optimistic that we are moving forward toward a resolution. We continue to reflect and learn from this incident. I wish to share our sincere appreciation to President Obama for his graciousness,” Haas said.
Gates, who is editor in chief of the Root newspaper, said he would accept Obama’s invitation to meet him and the police officer for beer at the White House.
“I told the president that my principal regret was that all of the attention paid to his deeply supportive remarks during his press conference had distracted attention from his health care initiative,” Gates said in statement.
Nevertheless, the White House refused to characterize Friday’s statement as a formal apology and Obama stuck by the substance of his original comments made at a press conference on Wednesday.
“The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society,” Obama said.