The Beer Might Be Light, But The Conversation Is Heavy01:55

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President Obama, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley are set to meet at the White House. Media hype has focused on what beers the three men might drink. For the president, it's Bud Light.

But for Cambridge residents, Thursday night's conversation is anything but light. They've got strong opinions on what the president, the professor and the police officer should talk about.

A few blocks north of the Charles River near Cambridgeport, Shay Ree is waiting to get her hair done at a Franklin Street salon. She says she really wants the White House meeting to get certain things out in the open. "Things we've seen in the news with harassment with the cops and stuff," she says. "I think then they may be able to accomplish something."

Accomplish something, she says, by first admitting what she calls a basic truth: that such experiences are real, and that racial tension is still a part of the nation's experience.

Further north, near Central Square, Johnny Ryan says the situation is overblown. "They're just going to waste a bunch of time and money and beer on having a meeting in the White House when they could have resolved it in Boston," he says, standing on a street corner, clipboard in hand. He's stopping strangers to raise money for Save the Children.

"Why couldn't he come here, and talk to them," Ryan adds. "Why'd they have to go to the White House?"

Location is important, because Ryan believes this is fundamentally a local issue, and a law enforcement issue. His concern is police power. Ryan says instead of paying for plane tickets to Washington, he'd rather have his tax dollars pay for a forum between law enforcement and the people in Cambridge.

A number of people shared similar feelings. For them, Thursday's White House meet-up is beside the point. Even worse, they say, it is a political diversion embraced by Mr. Obama to make up for stepping into the story in the first place. The lighthearted mood around beer on the White House lawn only makes matters worse, they say.

"I'm just worried that this issue is going to be swept under the rug because racism has reared its ugly head time and time again and no one really wants to discuss it," says Ryan Robeteau, a Cambridge barber.

His co-worker, Marlon Peters, fears what Mr. Obama named a "teachable moment" is already slipping away.

"I had one of my customers, he came in about a couple days ago, he was a Caucasian," Peters says. "After he left, he made a statement. He said, 'Next time I come in, can we choose a different issue to talk about?' "

Peters says he hopes the beer summit is just the beginning. He wants a promise from Mr. Obama, Gates and Crowley that they'll sponsor similar community forums across the country.

"Believe me, it needs to be dealt with. At least it needs to be talked about," Peters says. "This country is very diverse. It's just not a white and black thing. And maybe that's the way it should be, too. You should get some Asians, some Latinos, some blacks and some whites and talk about it."

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This program aired on July 30, 2009.

Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.