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What to learn in Obama's 'teachable' race moment?

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JESSE WASHINGTON
July 30, 2009

You can't solve a problem if you don't discuss it.


That's why some say that despite all the accusations and emotions hindering the resolution of the Henry Louis Gates Jr. imbroglio, there is opportunity for racial progress in President Barack Obama's "teachable moment" sitdown with Gates and Sgt. James Crowley.


"If nothing else, it's an important national symbol of a discussion that needs to be held," said Clarence B. Jones, once a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. and author of "What Would Martin Say?"


"If it's just regarded as the president bringing two guys together to clear the air, then it's meaningless," said Jones. "But if it's really intended to say in effect to the country, 'Look, the difficulties that occurred here are really emblematic of deeper issues,' it can work."


Beyond the symbolic, the meeting is an opportunity for the white cop, the black Harvard scholar and the biracial president "to say that they're wrong when they are wrong, to learn from one another's perspective as opposed to defending their own perspective," said Tali Hairston, director of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training and Community Development at Seattle Pacific University.


Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, an attorney for Gates, said they hoped to settle the dispute and "create a springboard for a larger discussion about how law enforcement interacts with minority communities and how we can figure out a way to both enforce the law but also protect civil liberties and civil rights."


Obama stabbed a raw nerve when he said Crowley acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates at his own home. Gates was charged with disorderly conduct for protesting Crowley's actions during a burglary investigation; the charge was dropped.


Obama quickly realized his mistake and sought to calm a national outburst of anger and avoid political repercussions. He praised Crowley, said both men had overreacted and invited them to share a beer at the White House.


Now, after mostly avoiding race issues, Obama may have stumbled into a role he was destined to play.


"Inadvertently, he may be the teacher," said Dorothy Miller, chair of the Race and Reconciliation Dialogue Group at the Saint Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh.


"He may end up the teacher even though he precipitated that remark" and has avoided race, Miller said. "Because of his evenness, Obama may be the teacher, and get both sides together. He has evolved to become the teacher."


Said Jones: "Obama may be uncomfortable with it, he may not have wanted it, but it goes with his portfolio. Now that he's elected, that's the leadership that is required if he wants to move beyond this issue in America."


Others say that for the Gates affair to create real change, the leadership has to come from the ground up.


"If we want this true racial reconciliation, and it's good that President Obama is making the first step to show others, now you start within your own community," said Stacey LaCompte, executive director of the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place in South Dakota, which works to improve race relations for the Sioux Nation.


"It's within ourselves if we really want to see and accomplish these things," she said.


We also should look to young people, Hairston said.


"When we listen to them about this situation, they're dumbfounded," he said. "They're befuddled. They have no idea why this is all over television. And that should tell us a lot.


"As much as I love President Obama, I think he is one of the students here. I think he's learning a lot about what does it mean to sit down and have a beer with two guys around this issue. I think he's learning a lot about saying the police acted stupidly."


For many people, the Gates arrest only hardened their convictions that black people are too quick to cry racism, or that white police routinely mistreat black citizens. If Gates and Crowley emerge from the meeting and continue to insist that the other man was at fault, the teachable moment could be lost.


"No apologies will be expected or conveyed tomorrow," Gates' lawyer, Ogletree, said late Wednesday. "The idea is to extend an opportunity for people to meet others that they didn't know and they only met in the most tense of circumstances."


Others say the biggest lessons have already been delivered that racism still haunts America even after Obama's election, or that racism has declined so much a black man can insult a white cop and live to make a documentary about it.


And maybe all this still has to sink into a nation that, less than two years ago, could barely grasp the idea of a president who wasn't white.


"Because of the past history of black people in the United States, they carry a whole burden of the past, it is so easy for them to believe things are racist," said Miller, of the Pittsburgh reconciliation group.


"In most cases, in many cases, they are. But in this case it turned out that it could be just a confrontation between two men who both lost their temper. So I think we can learn that we still have much to learn about racism."



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