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Was there a better way to conduct Gates-Crowley debate?

The national discourse over the Harvard professor's arrest, fueled by bloggers and media, was torrid. Some who leaped into the fray got burned.

By Staff writer / July 31, 2009

President Barack Obama sits down for a beer with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge, Massachusetts, police Sergeant James Crowley, and Vice President Joe Biden, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington Thursday.

Jim Young/REUTERS

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Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley closed a major chapter in “Gates-gate” with Thursday night’s meeting with President Obama in the Rose Garden (though there may yet be an epilogue). But for some of those drawn into the vortex of the national debate over race relations, the episode continues to have both personal and political reverberations.

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The take-away for some: A no-holds-barred exchange about race and society is still difficult in America – and can be punishing for those perceived to be impolitic.

To be sure, Dr. Gates's July 16 arrest for disorderly conduct was followed by an onslaught of candid discussion on the airwaves, over the Internet, and across kitchen tables. But the main problem, social critics say, is that racially defined “scripts” still take over the debate – and get amplified by the Internet opinion storm – with the media often serving as the punishing arm if the script is ignored or breached.

Some say a free-for-all debate is not, in the end, what's needed. Respectful dialogue – in contrast to all the shouting and finger-pointing that went on – is the only way to truly reduce prejudices on both sides, say those who hold this view.

“The best way to defuse, diminish, and ultimately dismantle the power of [prejudice] is to show even excessive respect in potential situations of conflict,” writes the Rev. Jim Wallis, author of “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It,” in an e-mail.

But the media's power to amplify, combined with lingering black rage and white guilt over the historic treatment of African-Americans, appeared to catch some debate participants off guard. The lesson may well be: Be careful what you say.

President Obama himself found this out. His poll numbers have taken a beating in the days since he called it like he saw it, calling police out for acting “stupidly” for arresting a man on his own front porch, a point on which many constitutional scholars back him up.

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center survey released this week found that 41 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the Gates arrest, compared with 29 percent who approve. Of white respondents, half disapprove, with support for the president falling most quickly among working-class whites – a key constituency.

‘Inversion of racial history’

Lucia Whalen, the passer-by who called 911 to report a possible burglary in progress at Gates’s house at 17 Ware Street, called a tearful press conference Wednesday to say that she does not judge people by their skin color but “by their character.”

Ms. Whalen initially was excoriated as a racist by many bloggers, since it first appeared that she told police that two black men with backpacks were trying to get into the house. The 911 tapes prove she never mentioned race on her own, and, when prompted by a dispatcher, said only that one of the men might have been Hispanic. She also mentioned suitcases, not backpacks.

Before Whalen spoke to the media, her friends and acquaintances had pointed out that she isn’t white but an “olive-skinned” first-generation Portuguese immigrant. Their defense of her is a stark commentary on the state of America’s race dialogue, some experts say.

“We have in this country this idea that being labeled an anonymous, dehumanized white woman makes you automatically sound like a Bull Conner,” says Jonathan Bean, author of “Race and Liberty in America.” “So you rush to defend yourself by playing up your nonwhite characteristics. It’s a bizarre inversion of racial history. It’s not progress; it’s sad, really.”

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