Saturday, July 25, 2009

Choose to Defuse

Nothing like a he said/he said drama to add some sizzle to the summer. Of course, no one--except the two men involved-- knows just what went down in Cambridge, Mass between Prof. Henry Louis Gates, a prominent African-American Harvard scholar and Sgt. James Crowley, who apparently oversees the Cambridge Police department's diversity and sensitivity training. But that doesn't stop us from conjuring vivid versions-- all shaded by heritage, age, experience and imagination-- and sharing them around the water cooler, at coffee shops and on cable TV and talk radio.

I immediately recalled the recounted experiences of a college classmate back in the 1980's. An attractive, impeccably groomed young man, the guy dressed more like a young exec on casual Friday than a student at our artsy college. He was also African-American. And he had just come back from an altercation with the cops in the affluent New York suburban town that bordered our college. "Why did they stop you?" I asked. His expression and response cut through my naive young heart. "Because I'm black." He was stopped simply because he had the audacity to walk through the predominantly white town. And it hadn't been the first time. It wouldn't be the last.

At fifty-eight Prof. Gates must have accrued an arsenal of such unpleasant experiences. His own and those of friends, relatives, colleagues and students. So that well-earned chip was firmly affixed to his shoulder the day he was stopped by the Cambridge Police officers for "residing while black." No one can question the police's obligation to respond to the 911 call that alerted them to a possible burglary. And maybe Gates was annoyed, maybe even utterly obnoxious upon their arrival. But once Sgt. Crowley ascertained that Gates was, indeed, in his own home, he should have left the professor to stew in his own indignant juices.

No one should get hauled out of his own home for being perturbed or even down right rude( or we'd all be in trouble). Remember the cops have the badges,the guns, the authority. It is their job to defuse the situation. So even if Gates was, as Crowley has said, " acting oddly," even if he had been spewing all sorts of colorful language, the officer should have abated the moment. A simple, "Sorry to have bothered you , sir. Have a good day," might have gone a long way. But he didn't and we know the rest; we all saw the humiliating photo of the distingusihed professor in handcuffs.

Since the incident all sorts of people--left, right, white, black--have offered their opinions. Several prominent black professionals and scholars have recounted their own "driving/walking while black" experiences.

And, of course, the most famous voice in the cultural chorus came from President Obama. His comment, at the end of his health care reform snooze conference, woke everyone up. His response:"the Cambridge Police acted stupidly" caused another firestorm. The Cambridge Police Association-- and other police groups across the country-- demanded the President apologize. Red meat right- wing commentators like Limbaugh, Hannity and O'Reilly had a two day feast.

By Friday, Obama did what the Cambridge cop would not: he defused the situation. He called both Crowley and Gates and interrupted a press briefing, acknowldging his words only ratcheted up the rancor. He said both men were good people who had overreacted. He invited them to the White House for a beer. And he thought the incident offered a " teachable moment" for the nation.

George Will, the esteemed conservative white septuagenarian columnist swatted the incident and the President's involvement like a pesky fly (the very act that got Obama into hot water with PETA). "Can you imagine Dwight Eisenhower commenting on a local police incident?" he asked on ABC's This Week on Sunday.Donna Brazille, the African-American Democratic strategist and commentator, echoed the President's sentiments, calling for a national conversation on race. Will countered, " We don't need the President to lead that conversation."

Maybe not. But Obama is a uniquely eloquent man in a unique position. His speech on race--given during the primary campaign--in response to the Rev. Wright controversy-- put forth some uncomfortable truths about race. Who better to speak to a still skittish and guilty nation about our prejudices and fears, about the racial divides that persist in our society than our first African-American president?

Every giant cultural shift starts with a small step or episode.Integration in the south started with Rosa Parks on a bus and defiant black citizens at lunch counters.Maybe the end to racial profiling can be brokered over a beer between three men at the White House. Let's just hope Sgt. Crowley doesn't demand to see President Obama's ID.

Drive safe. Play nice. Think peace.


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