Race to redemption
The reason we persist is because the confrontation between a black professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and a white cop, Sgt. James Crowley, is a mother lode of metaphor.
Cambridge—axis of academia and symbol of American elitism—is suddenly the Blombos Cave of American culture, exposing millennia of human behavioral history in a pinpoint of light.
And, of course, the president of the United States inserted himself into the mix.
The genie of race was released from the bottle when America elected its first African-American president—we could finally talk about it. Perfectly, Barack Obama is neither black nor white, but both.
Unfortunately, our little genie is still hostage to old resentments—haunted by subliminal fears and, like all of us, subject to unconscious motivations. This is why we keep talking about Gates and Crowley—and why psychologists will never go hungry.
Most Americans are probably relieved to have this conversation, but talk therapy requires honesty. Let’s start with this: All races are a little bit racist even as they aim not to be (i.e., we make certain assumptions based on race).
Let’s also assume that we’re all good people. Crowley is a good man; Gates is a good man. The president said so, so it must be true.
Given those understandings, what happened in Cambridge makes perfect sense from every which way. Gates had every right to be outraged that he was being questioned by a cop for being in his own home. Crowley had every reason to feel outraged that he was being accused of being a racist without provocation or any apparent basis for the charge.
Both men were reacting to their personal and cumulative histories. Blacks are tired of being treated as “black” with all the attendant assumptions. (What’s a black man doing in a white neighborhood?) Many, if not most, blacks can justify their resentment with stories of being stopped for “being black.”
Was Gates deliberately provocative? Maybe. If you were a professor of black culture—exhausted from travel and frustrated by events—might you decide to seize the moment for the larger lesson? Then again, maybe not. Maybe he just lost it.
Was Crowley overreacting to Gates’ challenges? Maybe. If you were Crowley—a good cop who teaches courses against racial profiling—wouldn’t you be offended if someone accused you of being a racist?
Might you be angry enough to teach this fellow a lesson in respect for authority? Uh-oh, dangerous words, those.
That’s at the crux, isn’t it? Cops have a right to be respected when they’re doing their jobs. But private citizens also have a right to be treated sensitively—even to be forgiven benign hostility—in their position of temporary subjugation.
Add to the ordinary reflex against authority the confounding factors of black-white history, and what should have been a simple exchange becomes an explosive confrontation. Images of white cops billy-clubbing peaceful black protestors are always at a low boil in American memory. More recent incidents of white cops mistakenly shooting innocent blacks also enter the subliminal equation.
A black man having to bow to white authority in his own home for no reason?
Not this black man, not this time. The white cop looks out the same window and sees a different landscape. To Crowley’s mind, maybe things were beginning to feel out of control. Maybe, too, Crowley was unconsciously responding to his perception of Gates as an arrogant academic who knows nothing of his trials as a working-class stiff—always potentially facing violence while being treated with contempt by those he’s charged to protect.
We weren’t there. We’re not mind readers.
But we all can see how this happened—and how fragile is the thread that connects us. How delicately we must tread. Even Obama, who initially said the police “acted stupidly,” has learned just how much words matter. His invitation now to share a beer in the White House with Crowley and Gates is revolutionary and potentially healing, a peace pipe for modern times.
When future archaeologists excavate our history, they will doubtless marvel at the symbolism of that simple gesture. Black, white and something in between, elites and working class, American dreamers all—sipping suds and talking no trash.
Cheers, gentlemen. May wonders never cease.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.