The Place Where We All Can’t Just Get Along

Black and white Americans have completely different reactions to the Gates case because they have a completely different historical experience with police authority.


Some tools used in statistics courses are useful for understanding race in America. In statistics, you learn about overlapping and non-overlapping “sets.”


Black and white America are like two Venn diagrams, circles that share substantial common or overlapping space and that have some areas that do not overlap at all. In many ways, the area of common overlap is now probably larger than it has ever been. And there is good reason to expect that overlap to grow in the future to the point of becoming completely co-terminus. Whenever that day comes, America will be effectively post-racial.


Yet, the remarkably polarized reactions to the recent arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. exposes one of those areas of non-overlapping, or unique, space. It reveals one of those acutely painful subjects where much of black and white America share all too little commonality of outlooks. It is that point of everyday interaction where race plays out in a face-to-face encounter. In particular, it involves the type of encounter involving respect for police authority on the one hand and, on the other hand, respect for the rights of citizens who happen to be African Americans.


For most blacks, this police-black citizen interaction is an acutely sensitive terrain. For many African Americans, it is a space marked by live wounds, personal and familial memories of injury and insult, and the heavy weight of group experience of injustice. For most whites, however, there is nothing so close, so profoundly emotion-laced or so fundamentally defined by an ascriptive feature such as one’s perceived racial background. It is, in short, a place where the Venn diagrams of white America and black America generally do not overlap.


As a consequence, it is one of those topics where miscommunication is not merely easy, but where potentially explosive mutual misunderstanding is quite likely. I know this in a very personal sense. A good friend whom I’ve known since high school got in touch with me following the news of Gates’ arrest on disorderly conduct charges. She passed along the initial news reports, which were based largely on parts of police reports that were inappropriately released and, at best, one-sided. To my mind, it sounded as if Gates had behaved wildly. I was as flabbergasted to hear that as to hear my friend’s conclusion that both sides had erred. I responded with, frankly, a blistering, liquid hot fusillade of facts and background as to why saying that just wasn’t good enough.