August 4th, 2009
06:52 PM ET
13 years ago

CNN Poll: Did Obama act stupidly in Gates arrest comments?

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="President Obama said 'the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody'."]

WASHINGTON (CNN) - A new national poll indicates that white and black Americans don't see eye to eye on last month's arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates. The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey, released Tuesday, also suggests a racial divide over President Barack Obama's initial comments on the incident.

Fifty-four percent of those questioned in the poll say they don't think Cambridge, Massachusetts police office James Crowley acted stupidly when he arrested Gates at the professor's home after Crowley responded to a call that someone was breaking into the house. One in three say they think Crowley did act stupidly. But there's a major racial divide, with 59 percent of black respondents saying that Crowley acted stupidly compared to 29 percent of whites questioned.

Just over half of those polled feel that Gates acted stupidly, with three in 10 saying no. Broken down by race, 58 percent of whites say Gates acted stupidly, with African-Americans split on the question.

The arrest sparked a national discussion on the issue of racial profiling, which was amplified when President Obama weighed in on the matter. In a prime time news conference last month, Obama said "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."

Two days later, after criticism from police unions and after speaking with Crowley, Obama attempted to defuse the dustup. "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 Sgt. (James) Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sgt. Crowley."

Fifty-four percent of those questioned say they think the president acted stupidly when the commented on the Gates arrest, with 32 percent disagreeing. But again, the poll indicates a racial divide, with more than six out of 10 whites feeling Obama acted stupidly but just one in four black respondents agreeing.

Six out of 10 approve of how the president's handled race relations, with nine out of ten African-Americans and 56 percent of whites approving.

Did Obama's initial comments damage his political standing?

"One-third of whites say that Obama's comments about this matter made them feel less favorable toward him, compared to only four percent of whites who feel more favorably toward Obama due to his comments," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "But the majority of whites say that Obama's comments did not affect their views of him, and most whites approve of how Obama is handling race relations."

Fifty-two percent of Americans feel racism among police officers is common, with 44 percent saying it's rare. Whites are split on that question, with 86 percent of black respondents feeling racism among police offices is common.

Two-thirds of whites say that a white homeowner would have been arrested for the same behavior. Only a quarter of blacks agree.
"That difference may be due to life experiences - more than half of blacks say they have been treated unfairly by the police because of their race but only a handful of whites report the same kind of treatment," adds Holland.

The poll indicates that both blacks and whites believe that Friday's beer summit at the White House was a good idea. But was it a "teachable moment," as mentioned by the president?

"Not according to the public - blacks and whites agree that the whole controversy did not teach Americans a lesson that will lead to better race relations," says Holland.

The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was conducted Friday through Monday, 7/31-8/3, with 1,136 adult Americans - including 226 African-Americans and 773 whites - questioned by telephone. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the overall sample and plus or minus 6.5 percentage points for the breakdown by race.

Click here for full results (pdf)

Filed under: Extra • President Obama
soundoff (304 Responses)
  1. Larry

    No. He was telling the truth.

    Racial profiling is a problem in this country.

    August 4, 2009 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  2. Leon

    Apologize, that is something he is good at, he does it so well abroad.

    August 4, 2009 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  3. Terrell

    Of course there is a racial divide. White people don't live a black person's life in this country. They don't get profiled and called racist names like black people have. Its all about life experiences. If white people could just pretend it doesn't happen now that we have a African American President they would just let it slide. "We have a black president we are racist". Yea right.

    August 4, 2009 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  4. BobAbrams

    Too many #s...this poll is acting stupudly

    August 4, 2009 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  5. No Hillary = No Obama

    Actually, I thought when Obama made that comment it was one of the few times he seemed genuine and not pompous or arrogant, like he usually comes across. I thought it interesting that Crowley was left holding the media bag while Gates treated himself to a friendly audience to make his comments. These Black men are more privileged than the majority of Americans, so what are they whining about.

    August 4, 2009 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  6. T

    Officer Crowley DID act stupidly. Professor Gates committed no crime. He exercised his right to free speech in his home. Officer Crowley just did not like that Professor Gates had the audacity to question Officer Crowley's authority. If not, then why did Officer Crowley list in the police report that Professor Gates neighbor said "two Black men", when she and the 911 tapes clearly indicated that she did not. Officer Crowley was trying to show Professor Gates who was in charge and lied in his police report to support his ignorance.

    August 4, 2009 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  7. Minnesotan

    This is a non-issue that's been trotted out by the conservatives, much like flag-burning, gay marriage and Obama's birth certificate, to distract people from substantial issues like health care, corporate greed, the economy and the environment.

    August 4, 2009 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  8. smokey

    I think that the Media once again tried to sabotage the real issues being debated..Pres Obama was holding a conference on HelathCare, so I ask you what was the deal with that so called reported asking a wuestion that had nothing what so ever to do with the conversation !!! She was just trying to distract people from the real issues Pres Obama was discussing, while at the same starting some controversy..Why can's people just take the situation for what is was..2 people in a situation where both thought they acted appropriately..To me, that reporter is the one who wanted to inject racism into the issue, because i guarantee if Pres Obama had been a white man, the question whould have never came up ! And further more, if Pres Obama was not black the media would not have jumped all over it and did their usual spin..!!!

    August 4, 2009 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  9. Robin

    Yes. He should have stated he supports his friend, but does not have enough facts to comment further. Mr. Obama has some very impressive degrees hanging on his wall. To bad he does not act with prudence.

    The only reason he had the silly "Beer Summit" was because he can't afford to lose the votes of policemen nationwide, but it may be too little too late.

    It was a photo op. No more, No less.

    August 4, 2009 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  10. Fitz

    Paul please do us a favor, poll the same people again but first educate them on the fact that according to Mass state law, Professor Gates did not committ any crime, not even for yelling at an officer. Then ask again if they think Sgt Crowley acted stupidly in arresting him.


    August 4, 2009 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  11. MD

    NO. We are kidding ourselves if we think there were no racial implications in this case.
    No one has asked why the 911 receptionist asked whether the potential intruders were BLACK, WHITE or HISPANIC. NOT ONCE BUT TWICE.
    What the heck difference did that make except to help determine how to react with the intruders.. I thought a THIEF was a THIEF was a THIEF. Guess not.
    So those of you who pounced all over this and think he was wrong, did you ever consider why knowing the race of the intruder mattered to the Cambrigde PD?
    That LITTLE question is exactly why the President responded the way he did. That and the fact that Professor Gates was his friend. All he was guilty of was supporting his friend publicly.. He should have just spoken to him in private.
    Especially since THIS PRESIDENT is always going to be held to a DOUBLE STANDARD.
    CNN just let it go...

    August 4, 2009 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  12. Expat American

    He shouldn't have made any comment. He is not the President of African-American issues. He is the President of the United States. Someone else should have publicly addressed that situation, not President Obama.

    August 4, 2009 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  13. Retired US Army

    All three were out of line. It's over, get over it.

    August 4, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  14. jon

    As long as we continue to engage in a half discussion on race relations, there will be no progress made. I have yet to see any news outlet engage in a 360 debate on the subject. There is no honest discourse. As for this incident, it's time to put it behind us.

    August 4, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  15. MeInAtlanta

    Yes, he didn't need to make a comment!

    August 4, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  16. Dennis

    He apparently said what was on his mind and not what was written on the teleprompter and yes, it was stupid.

    August 4, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  17. fireball

    ...different life experiences different opinions. For white people soldiers and cops are their defense against the world. Their protectors. For black people this has not always been the case. You're always going to defend those you identify with and assume everybody else is wrong.

    to borrow from Sotomayor, black people have a better chance at giving a situation an honest look without having to look through the lense of color. True there are some militant black people out there who will only side with black but they are a minority within a minority sometimes they just have bigger mouths but the vast majority of black folks are capable of looking beyond because there's no deep seated prejudice. Most of the tension from blacks is mistrust and unfortunately in some instances an inferiority complex not actual prejudice or racism. Black people will usually take anyone into the fold as long as they don't feel they have to be defensive about being black.

    Been around black folks all my life and I haven't really met any racist black people. Overly senstive ones? Definitely.

    All this survey tells me is that white people think being obnoxious to someone who puts their life on the line is a reason to be arrested. While that might be a noble idea. I don't think its actually a crime.

    Personally, I don't think most white people are racist, just insensitve and occasionally condescending.

    August 4, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  18. KLK

    No, he did not.

    August 4, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  19. Kevin in Ohio

    Gates was belligerent. Crowley was doing his job by the book. Obama did not have the facts. Period.

    August 4, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  20. Brian0901

    I am white and I could care less. I voted for Obama and would again.

    August 4, 2009 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  21. Rose in Colorado

    I don't think Sargent Crowley was wrong in arresting Professor Gates considering the way that Gates was behaving towards him. The only ones that I consider that they acted wrong was Gates and Obama. As president of this country Obama should not get involved in matters that are not his business, especially taking sides with a friend without learning all the details of the situation.

    I think that the President has learned his lesson and this will not happen again.

    August 4, 2009 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  22. Deb

    No, the President did not act stupidly. He is a wonderful President. Let's give him a chance.

    August 4, 2009 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  23. Fredrik

    I hope that all of those people who stated that Crowley did not act stupidly will at some point get arrested in their own home even if they did not commit a crime.

    Enough said...

    August 4, 2009 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  24. Margaret

    These two men are to blame for acting arrogantly and uncooperatively. Ultimately, however, I feel Lt. Crowley overreacted in arresting Prof. Gates. He was in his own home and had shown positive ID. Gates, who is supposedly trained in racial relations, should have been "big enough" to walk away when he saw it wasn't a burglary. I think two egos were out of control here. As for Obama, I agree that policeman acted stupidly. I think he spoke the truth, even though it wasn't politically expedient.

    August 4, 2009 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  25. Russell, NC

    Obama is the one who acted stupidly. He said he didn't have the facts. Yet he said Gates was arrested stupidly. I cannot imagine a president making such a stupid remark. Very, very unbecoming for a president. He seems to think being president gives him a license to say whatever. I expect police officers accross the country will remember that in 2012. I know I will remember.

    August 4, 2009 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
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