It's the Race Issue, Stupid





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If anybody was still desperately trying to cling to the idea that we've become "post-racial" because we have a black president, the incident between Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Mass., police has buried that idea for good.

There was a glimmer of hope when Obama was elected that having an African American president supported by a diverse chunk of the electorate might lead to better race relations in the United States. How that would happen, nobody quite knew, but we figured if enough white people wore T-shirts with a famous black man's face, then a miracle was bound to happen.

No miracles yet. What we've come to realize is that what we thought was racial healing was really a process of ripping the scabs off old wounds. We've also realized that certain words carry the weight of being "race triggers." By that I mean there are some words that can be used to trigger a racial question that the media latches onto as a legitimate story. That story is usually followed by a lot of hand-wringing about why we haven't progressed on the racial front, a lot of wondering about whether this is a "teachable moment" in race relations and then a slow news cycle death as we grow bored with the story.

In Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's case, the race-trigger word was "better." At a Berkeley symposium she said that a wise Latina judge might make a better decision than a white judge because of her life experience. Only one GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to confirm Sotomayor Tuesday (that was Lindsey Graham of South Carolina), and that simple word gave the other Republican members the cover they needed to vote against a historic nomination.

Obama's race-trigger word was "stupid." When asked about the Gates case, Obama appeared to answer off the cuff, saying that he "didn't know all the facts," but that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in arresting a man who had proved he was in his own house. Let's go over the generally accepted facts: Gates, a Harvard professor and chair of the African American Studies department, returned to his house after a trip from China to find his front door had swelled shut from the summer heat. When he and his cab driver tried to force the door open, a neighbor saw them and called the police to report a possible break-in. Gates went around to the back door and entered his house, but then was questioned by a police officer who arrived on the scene. Gates showed his identification to the officer, but appeared angry that he was being questioned in his own home. Words were exchanged, and the officer arrested Gates for disorderly conduct and brought him down to the police station in handcuffs.

Obama made a serious mistake in taking Gates' side, and especially in using the loaded term "stupid" in referring to Sgt. James Crowley's arrest of Gates. That simple word, like Sotomayor's "better," gave his enemies all the ammunition they needed to set up these players as symbols rather than people. Gates became the overly sensitive black intellectual too quick to play the race card when there was no evidence that race had been a factor in Crowley's conduct. Crowley became the hard-working blue-collar white guy who was doing his job and was wrongly called a racist.

But black America sees a whole different set of symbols. Gates' experience represents every time an innocent black man has been hassled or wrongly arrested by police (and that has been often). Crowley symbolizes the front that white America puts up-claiming that everybody is treated equally in the eyes of the law when the reality on the street is completely the opposite.

Now Obama wants to put the whole thing behind him, inviting both Crowley and Gates to meet at the White House over a beer tonight. Seriously.

It's going to take more than a beer to bridge the chasm between black people and the police. If there is any "teachable moment" here, it's that words matter, and when it comes to race, they really matter. We have to be both careful and honest when racial tensions come into play, and it's often hard to do both. We can say that Gates ought not to have been arrested because he got in the face of a police officer who asked him to calm down. But we should be careful about saying that this particular arrest is only about Gates' skin color. We'll never know the true counterfactual-if Gates is white and is just as obnoxious to the cop, does he get cuffed?-but let's set all those hypotheticals aside.

The so-called dialogue about race we have now-and this applies to the mainstream and campus life-is a mindless cacophony of shouting-level rants by activists on both sides of a racial divide who are incapable of seeing the world from the perspective of the person they're shouting at.

When I hear this cacophony, I like to recall one of my favorite movies, "Do the Right Thing," Spike Lee's joint that was made before many Berkeley students were even born. Netflix it if you haven't seen it, kids, it's a classic. Samuel L. Jackson, before he was a badass in "Pulp Fiction," was Mister Senor Love Daddy, a radio DJ who acts as the movie's chorus. When racial tensions run high in his neighborhood and names start getting thrown around, Love Daddy has this to say: "Yo! Hold up! Time out! TIME OUT! Y'all take a chill! Ya need to cool that shit out! And that's the double truth, Ruth!"

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