You Can't Learn From a Sound Bite

Illustration for article titled You Can't Learn From a Sound Bite

Miller Time at the White House came and went. Most black people and police critics are still shouting, “Tastes great.” White people and police supporters are still shouting, “Less filling.” The deep problem beneath the surface of the Gates-Crowley encounter has not changed at all. Let the teaching begin. The issue now is the future, not dissecting the past.


Going into it, I thought that the most one could hope for from President Obama’s beer summit was a mutual gesture of humanity, understanding and the potential for reconciliation. The image of civil exchange at a table is a start. For me, a picture of the men shaking hands would be important and more than enough. An agreement for a continuing discussion and clear evidence of mutual respect and a decision to move forward positively is even more important. But let’s be clear, despite the wails and moans of the gathered epic media-scrum who felt they were not given sufficient access, a real dialogue cannot take place with the whole world watching.

No major peace accord has been negotiated with the media at the table. No de-escalation of military tensions has occurred with the media filming every utterance, gesture and twitch of the negotiators. And despite our modern pre-occupation with Dr. Phil and shows like his that showcase personal failings and individual wounds, the breach exposed by the Gates-Crowley affair will not be spanned while bright lights and talking heads screech well-rehearsed bromides at each other.

From the beginning, this event was a symbol of a well-known and explosive fissure in American society: the place where the frontline of government authority—the police—face what has long been the leading edge of social division in America—race. But this type of encounter is just the tip of the iceberg. The bigger problem is the noxious combination of persistent black poverty and segregation on the one hand, and a persistent culture of anti-black prejudice that still bedevils America, though less potent and pervasive today than it was in the past, on the other.

Happy hour is over. It’s closing time on the Gates-Crowley media scrum. My hope is that now the time has arrived to focus on the real problem and get beneath and beyond all the spin and symbolism.

The issue struck a cord precisely because it reaches a deep place in American identity. Sadly, it reveals something about who we are. The American people and, therefore, the media remain engaged with this issue precisely because it cuts so close to the heart of the enduring legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and racial division in American society. That the incident also simultaneously involved social class divisions and claims of police misconduct only added even more layers of complexity to the incident. Healing these wounds cannot possibly be accomplished in an evening of beer drinking. But the intensity of the focus on the moment is certainly understandable.

President Obama gambled much on bringing together Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley. Either man could have scuttled this event and played strictly to their core supporters. But both decided to be open to the possibility of something greater and more important. Obama is a leader who saw the possibility in this moment and made the gestures necessary to keep things moving forward. Thank you, Mr. President.


Yes, Obama’s words at the end of his earlier press conference could have been more carefully chosen. If that had happened, perhaps no “beer summit” would have been necessary. But he reacted honestly and that is fair and only human. He also later apologized for using language that was too sweeping in the net it cast and too strong in the condemnation it contained. A political coward would have sidestepped the issue entirely. Obama did not. I applaud him for that and continue to be astonished and gratified by his capacity for genuine leadership. I doubt that either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton would or could have brought these two men together and turned the situation into a step forward.

And I want to applaud both my friend, Skip Gates, and James Crowley. Both men needed to swallow a little pride on this day and both found a way do so. And most importantly, both decided to stay focused on the future and the larger issues. Unlike the tiresome cast of pundits, they did not make this about re-interpreting the past or playing to their own choirs.


Now the real work begins. Racial profiling is a problem. Black poverty and a set of anti-crime and law enforcement policies that all too often pit poor black communities against the police must be the subject of the most searching scrutiny and re-evaluation. I have on previous occasions discussed the magnitude of the problem of black incarceration. Scholars, policy-makers and law enforcement officials around the nation now need to redouble the efforts to make sure we have law enforcement policies that insure the public safety of everyone and that involve a fair and even-handed application of the law without regard to race.

There is a lesson here about fear of discourse on race issues. Franklin Roosevelt called it years and years ago: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” To be sure, the intensity of a high-profile controversy is, in and of itself, no place for meaningful discussion to occur. Our colleges and universities, town halls and school auditoriums, local restaurants and family dining rooms are indeed the places where serious and meaningful discussion can and should now be taking place.


If Gates and Crowley can do it, perhaps all of us can. We just all have to agree to get beyond the sound bites. The teachable moment is here.

Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.