I think that the invitation by President Obama to Dr. Gates could lead to a possible learning moment that could change the perception and ultimately the reality of bad police community relations in this country. As one who has been involved in racial profiling cases since the ‘90s, I can tell you that people tend to take their respective sides rather than understand respective views. Rather than people understanding that we all need good policing and equal protection under the law people tend to get caught up in distractive arguments that undercut the goal of a fair and just society.
Given the visibility of this matter, such a meeting would put the issue front and center and show that people that raise issues on policing, as in this case, Dr. Gates, are not criminals seeking to bash police. And Sgt. Crowley can represent police that feel misunderstood. The president can then in the balance help bring us in an era of federally enforced laws that protect citizens from overly aggressive and or racially biased policing because of ill-defined laws.
I strongly urge Dr. Gates to take the risk to move us forward in history rather than continue the cycle of incident after incident without legally enforceable federal resolutions to the problem of police community relations. We have been successful in various states with laws and training programs. It is time for the federal government to tackle this. This meeting could be a major step toward making that happening.
My evidence is not extensive, based only on personal experience and hearsay from friends over the years. So, because I perhaps irrationally consider Boston and its surrounding environs no more than a northern enclave of necks either deeply red or hot pink at best, I would not be surprised by any action of subtle or overt racism. That said, I am sorry, but I do not consider the majority of this noise being made about the Skip Gates incident connected to much of actual importance.
There are a number of things that should get the attention of these talking heads representing a supposed black intelligentsia full of people who specialize in black victimization, even when there is none. One would expect from this body of apparent milquetoasts that we would see them equally agitated and full of public concern over the death of 44-year-old Jesselle Page, who died earlier this month from a bullet she received while trying to protect her nephew during a gun battle between local Brooklyn knuckleheads at a playground.
This is a national problem about which we do not hear a peep from these academics. We also have heard nothing from them about Rashad Johnson who was shot three times on Halloween night 2007 by fellow Morehouse student Joshua Brandon Norris. Imagine what we would have heard plenty if Norris was a white student at Georgia Tech with whom the prosecution made a plea bargain deal in which all he had to do was graduate this last summer! Oops, the district attorney admitted the terrible error on the part of his office, the judge who had traveled with Bill Cosby telling young black people tolean up their acts presided over this clear injustice and the pesident of Morehouse went along by choosing not to expel Norris. Kind of shabby but not the sort that might help get someone on tenure track for bringing national attention to the supposed woes placed upon the backs of black men, from the sidewalk to the academy.
There are plenty of heartbreaking woes, but we need to separate the larger ones from those so much smaller than anything indicative of ongoing racial troubles. It would do all of us some good to know which things we should shout ourselves hoarse about and those about which we should keep our mouths out of the hot air action.
Living in South Africa as I do, my opinion on the Gates Affair is influenced by the historical legacy of Nelson Mandela who saved his nation from a potential bloodbath by his embrace and promotion of reconciliation. He made concessions to the white apartheid regime that didn't please everyone and that has lingering ramifications that have yet to be addressed. But he opened a path that led to black majority rule, if not yet a better life for all those who had been oppressed by the white minority regime. And Mandela set a standard that has been duplicated with varying degrees of success all over the world.
For all the negatives surrounding the Gates Affair, one major positive is that it has set in motion a national conversation, if not debate, that is long overdue—not least because of the disproportionate impact of racial profiling on blacks and Hispanics.
It may be naïve to think that once people have the facts and good information they will do the right thing, but the more open and honest debate we have on issues such as this one, the more likely it is that we can open some minds, if not hearts.
So, I am all in favor of the two men going to the White House, if not to have a beer, at least to keep the conversation going in a constructive way. And while Frederick Douglass said there can be no progress without struggle, I would say, there can be no progress without dialogue. But not dialogue just to resolve the Gates Affair, but hopefully dialogue that will benefit the countless numbers of black and Hispanic men who don't have a Harvard Square address or the credentials of the inhabitant of that house.
Many might ask what will be achieved by dialogue. I would hope that in the spotlight of the White House, with some of the best minds in America it would lead to a re-examination of patterns and practices of existing policies, as well as the need to fill the void with effective polices and practices where none exists, as well as the establishment of some system of accountability. A case in point is the policeman in question was responsible for sensitivity training around racial profiling. I would hope a dialogue would lead to answers about what went wrong and how to fix it so that the arc of the moral universe in this instance and all others like it will bend toward justice—a sentiment the president is fond of.
Gates has no choice but to accept. You can't turn down an invitation from the president. But going this route stands a fair chance of trivializing the issues raised by the original incident. This wasn't simply a misunderstanding between two individuals that can be resolved by sharing a beer. There needs to be a serious independent investigation of what I consider to be an example of the sort police misconduct that goes down all the time. That's what the president ought to be backing instead of a White House beer bash.
As a mother I know this: You shouldn't reward bad behavior with attention. That's why it bugs me to consider that either Professor Gates or Sgt. Crowley will be rewarded for losing their respective cools with a visit to the White House and a long tall one with the president. But as a mother I also know that sometimes it is best to ignore the small stuff and get to the more important lesson. Let's face it—either man could have been the bigger man that day and wasn't. But now both men have become proxies—and they know it—whether they want to be or not. Professor Gates has become a proxy for every black man who has ever been demeaned by a rude and possibly racist cop. But also (and I'm sure he doesn't love this) he's become a proxy for every black man with a serious chip on his shoulder. Officer Crowley has become a proxy for people he probably doesn't like very much either: thickheaded, bully cops who don't get it and pissed-off white guys who blame minorities for everything they don't have and are mad because they don't run the world.
What they both wanted that day and didn't get was respect: for themselves as individuals, as people trying to do a job and get through the day. And they both lost it. Which is what President Obama saw and why I assume he decided that he would be the bigger man and offer up the beer. So of course, Professor Gates should go—and if he doesn't want to, I do (even though I don't drink beer). What both Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley want is what we all want: to be seen for what each believes himself to be. And the best way to do that is to be that man: face to face. Then maybe they can help the rest of us start figuring out how to there, too.
Professor Gates should definitely meet with Sgt. Crowley and President Obama. (Beer, however, might not be his choice of beverage; a vintage bottle of good wine should suit him just fine.) President Obama is right to say that this is indeed a pedagogical moment. Above all else, Skip is a teacher; he has spent his entire career thinking carefully about race and culture. His voice might help us as we lurch toward an uncertain future.
Three immediate challenges to this conversation come to mind. First, they must correct an error. The president equated Skip’s overreaction with Sgt. Crowley’s. There is no equivalence here; Crowley possessed the authority to use deadly force. Skip did not. And this difference matters greatly. Second, they must tackle the illusion that the election of President Obama signaled a fundamental change in race relations. That all-too-often unquestioned belief lulls us to sleep and when a racial incident happens, the clamor becomes deafening, precisely because the incident betrays the illusion that all is right with race in the nation. Finally, they must grapple with how the nation now perceives African Americans’ historical and contemporary grievance; our grievances seemingly have been transformed, by some at least, into a kind of oversensitivity.
Black men are not overly sensitive about encounters with the police; our reactions reflect generations of experience that ought to be taken not only seriously, but handled with care.
James Baldwin’s powerful words in “Many Thousands Gone” seem especially relevant in this “teaching” moment. He wrote: “In our image of the Negro breathes the past we deny, not dead but living yet and powerful, the beast in our jungle of statistics. It is this which defeats us, which continues to defeat us, which lends to interracial cocktail parties their rattling, genteel, nervously smiling air …. Wherever the Negro face appears a tension is created, the tension of a silence filled with things unutterable. It is a sentimental error, therefore, to believe that the past is dead; it means nothing to say that it is all forgotten, that the Negro himself has forgotten it. It is not a question of memory. Oedipus did not remember the thongs that bound his feet; nevertheless marks they left testified to that doom toward which his feet were leading him.
I applaud President Obama’s willingness to step into this debate. Frankly, however, the conversation that needs to happen goes well beyond the one between President Obama, Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley. The president is in a position to use this encounter to engage the country—and not just the participants on the now infamous porch scenario—in a thorough vetting of the multiple ways that race still interacts with gender and class and power in our society as whole. Both the police officer and the professor, unfamiliar with each other, were nevertheless playing out longstanding clashes between town and gown. Fighting it out on that porch scene were the expectations of respect that come with privilege and property against the expectations of respect that come with a badge and a gun. Pitting these two powerful narratives against each other was a legacy of racism and social control from a time in our history when blacks did not own property; they were property. At the same time, we have a contemporary criminal justice system that exercises outsized control as the major urban policy instrument for controlling the poor.
The conversation might begin with the hope of figuring out what each man should or could have done differently to de-escalate this situation. But the ultimate goal of the conversation should be to explore the encounter as a potent learning moment for the entire country. The mini-drama that occurred on a porch in Cambridge is much bigger than the encounter between Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley, in other words. This is a story of America that we ignore at our collective peril.
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