Friday, July 31, 2009

Gates, Crowley and Obama: Racism in America

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13:12-13

"We hit it off right from the beginning. When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy."
Professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr.

One thing we have learned in the days since Sergeant James Crowley arrested Harvard University Professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. in his own home, is that racism is alive and well in America. But it has not played out in the way we might have expected.

The Golden Citizenship Award for racial tolerance and community concern goes to Lucia Whalen, the woman who made the 911 call that set the events in motion. Sadly, before the facts were fully known, Ms. Whalen had been widely vilified as a “racist neighbor,” who had assumed that if two black men were trying to get into a house, then they must be burglars. In fact she had been cautious in telling the 911 operator that she could not determine the race of the men (Professor Gates and his taxi driver), and adding that they had suitcases and they might live there. Ms Whalen is not a neighbor, but she does work nearby. And she is exactly the sort of conscientious person you would want in your neighborhood.

Both Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley were culpable in the original incident. The professor should not have yelled at the sergeant, and the sergeant should not have arrested the professor after he determined that Dr. Gates was in his own home. But after the initial incident, both men acquitted themselves much better. And as he said, President Obama could have “calibrated his remarks” differently.

But the men gathered around the picnic table at the White House were not the ones feeding the racism.

This past Monday morning I tuned in to our local sports talk station, expecting to hear folks ranting on John Smoltz giving up 6 runs in five innings, and thinking to myself that the Red Sox needed better hitting, as well as pitching, but it’s a long season and (as Annie Savoy said in “Bull Durham”) you gotta trust. Instead I heard one of the hosts launch into a rant on Professor Gates. Basically, what he said was that Dr. Gates got exactly what he wanted.

In other words, “He was asking for it.”

Under this scenario, we are invited to imagine that some time on the flight back from China or maybe on the ride from the airport, the professor said to himself, “Maybe I can get myself arrested in my own home. I’m an internationally known scholar at one of the best universities in the world, but something is missing.” Call me crazy, but I find that hard to believe.

Other commentators labeled President Obama and Professor Gates “Black Militants” and Racists, which is pretty silly and makes you wonder if they have ever actually met a militant Black person.

What the attacks had in common was the assertion that racism is a Black problem rather than a white problem. What this proved once again, the commentators insisted, was that “They” (Black people) want to be victims. The pundits allow the theoretical possibility of racial profiling, but deny the specific instance. It’s not a new strategy. When non-violent demonstrators were attacked during the Civil Rights movement, they were blamed for inciting the violence. Again, they brought it on themselves.

Blaming the victim is classic racism. On the other hand, the fact that racism is a reality in America does not mean that Sergeant Crowley is a racist. The evidence is that he is a decent and honorable person. And he is clearly not willing to be the poster boy for anyone’s racist rant.

After the “Beer Summit” with President Obama, Sergeant Crowley gave a remarkable press conference. He was poised, articulate, friendly, charming, and clearly willing to let go of a grudge (if he ever held one). On a scale of 1 to 10, he scored at least a 12. He made it clear that he had been and would be listening to Professor Gates, and that he had something to learn from him. He also said that the professor had indicated a willingness and desire to reciprocate the listening and learning.

When Saint Paul said that we “see through a glass darkly,” he wasn’t talking about looking through a glass of Bud Light or Sam Adams, but he was talking about relationships. And he was right that being “face to face” helps us see things differently. Some day in American race relations we really will “know fully” and be “fully known.” In spite of their unlikely beginning, the sergeant and the professor gave us hope that that day will come.

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