By now we can all agree that there is only so much wisdom that can be gleaned from a sound bite, a blurry photo, or a 911 phone call. Teachable Moment. Stupidly. Beer Summit. I’ll see your mama outside!
My own emotional response to the controversy surrounding the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has run the gamut from shock and snarky suspicion to self-righteousness and aggressive indifference. Along the way, though, I have marveled at the surprisingly nuanced social and political commentary that has emerged – not from cable news pundits – but through essays that cite useful anecdotes, acknowledge the unspoken forces at work, and compel us to ask hard questions. In linking these articles here, I take to heart the challenge posed by Lani Guinier: “What might we learn instead about contemporary race matters if we could move beyond the stock stories?”
Now, to be clear, I don’t agree with every article listed; in fact, I hardly ever agree with anything John McWhorter says at all. (But that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn something from his commentary.) This is a working list, so if you’ve found other Gates “keepers,” please let me know!
“Race and Reality in a Front-Porch Encounter” by Lani Guinier (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
It is time, in other words, for both versions of the Gates-Crowley encounter to move beyond the 1963 lock on our imagination. Sergeant Crowley is not a virulent Bull Connor. Nor is Professor Gates merely an elegant and more internationally savvy adaptation of a quietly suffering James Meredith. Both of the stock versions of what happened on the Cambridge porch in 2009 are incomplete caricatures.
. . .
Racial literacy would help all of us understand that behind the two force fields competing for respect on that Cambridge porch is a criminal-justice system that exercises outsized control as the major urban-policy instrument for controlling the poor. We have focused our resources disproportionately on policing and criminalizing the poor. As a result, we have too often put our police officers into the positions of legislators, prosecutors, judges, and juries—positions for which they are not qualified and that they should not be expected to fulfill—even in well-to-do neighborhoods like the one in Cambridge.
“The Gates Opening” by Gregory Rodriguez (Los Angeles Times)
The fact is, we are not and may never be (or even want to be) a totally post-racial society, in which race has no significance whatsoever. But the color line is murky now, and black commentators’ using Gates’ arrest to argue against the historical significance of Obama’s electoral victory suggests that they haven’t come to grips with how far it has faded.
. . .
Older minorities who have spent their lives defining themselves by the discrimination they have faced can sometimes have a hard time acknowledging that the world has changed, even as they enjoy those changes. Being discriminated against is one way they see their relationship to the world, and they’re unclear how to navigate if they concede its absence. That is what makes Obama’s election so unsettling to some blacks. Even as they rejoice in his victory, it requires them to recalibrate their view of the world and their place within it.
“Before We All Have a Beer” by Anna Deavere Smith (Huffington Post)
As we feel the heat ease off of the national debate let’s bring our awareness to the racial tinderboxes of many kinds all over the country. A hot, as in energized, national debate about “race” will cause us to realize that we can pay attention to more than one narrative at once. To name a few — women, their vulnerability both economically and to the criminal justice system — the rates of women and young women who are incarcerated has increased exponentially in the last two decades; juveniles and disparities about how they are treated in the courts and in schools; Muslim Americans post-9/11; immigration reform… the list goes on and on.
“Gates is Right – and We’re Not Post-Racial Until He’s Wrong” by John McWhorter (The New Republic)
I maintain that racism is no longer the main problem for black America–but have always said that when racism rears its ugly head it must be stomped upon. In 2009, Obama acknowledged, black men’s encounters with the police (as well as some black women’s) are unlike enough to what whites encounter that attention must still be paid.
“Post-Race Scholar Yells Racism” by Ishmael Reed (Counterpunch)
If Gate’s ceases his role as just another tough lover and an “intellectual entrepreneur,” and takes a role in ending racial traffic and retail profiling, and police home invasions, issues that have lingered since even before [Charles] Chesnutt’s time, we can say, “Welcome home, Skip; welcome home.”