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Gates, Crowley and the teachable moment

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on July 31, 2009 at 4:38 pm with No Comments »
July 31, 2009 4:38 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through …

So said the president who brought Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and police Sgt. James Crowley to the Rose Garden Thursday for the much-lampooned "suds summit."

But Barack Obama didn’t utter those words last week. He uttered them as a presidential candidate almost a year and a half ago while trying to extricate his campaign from inflammatory comments made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor.

This time, Obama was doing damage control for his own comment that the police "acted stupidly" July 16 in arresting Gates, a personal friend. Obama quickly swallowed those words, but the world had already seen an American president entangling himself in a front-porch dispute in Cambridge, Mass., that he admitted knowing little about.

It was, as Obama said, "a teachable moment" – for him, for Gates and Crowley, for the country.

White Americans can take one lesson away from this: A black American man can get an Ivy League education, become a constitutional law professor, a U.S. senator and finally president of the United States – and still cringe when he hears of a black friend arrested after an unfounded suspicion of burglary.

That’s a raw nerve rooted in centuries of indignities inflicted on black Americans under color of authority. One Boston police officer’s recent ridicule of Gates as a "banana-eating jungle monkey" shows why the nerve’s going to remain raw for awhile yet.

But old patterns of racism don’t mean Crowley (and his black and Latino backup) "acted stupidly" on Gates’ porch. It should be fairly clear by now that Crowley isn’t a throwback to the bad old days when – in many cities – blacks had to assume the billy clubs had their names written on them.

At the summit, Gates cracked, "We hit it off right from the beginning. When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy."

The "complexities of race" were sitting right at that table alongside Gates, Crowley and the first black head of state elected by any major Western nation – a nation that’s come a long way since the days of Jim Crow.

As for the arrest itself, maybe the best conclusion can be drawn from a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll done last week.

It indicated that 4 percent of African Americans blamed Gates for the clash and 30 percent blamed Crowley. Of whites, 32 percent blamed Gates and 7 percent Crowley.

That’s the familiar old mirror image of racial attitudes. But wait: Those same numbers suggest that more than half of all black and white Americans blame neither Gates nor Crowley, blame both or simply acknowledge not having enough facts to reach a conclusion.

The ones who refuse to jump to conclusions may have the most to teach America in this teachable moment.

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