Who learned what in Gates race debate
The flap over the arrest of the black Harvard scholar sparked a spirited national discussion, but did it turn out to be a ‘teachable moment’?
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A picnic table.
The president’s informal chat July 30 with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley – the police officer who arrested Dr. Gates at his own home for disorderly conduct on July 16 – followed a spontaneous national debate that, in many ways, proved to be more candid and spirited than President Clinton’s somewhat academic “national discussion on race” in 1997.
The confrontation between a scholar of African-American studies and a blue-collar cop in Cambridge, Mass., reverberated across the nation, and from Berkeley, Calif., to New York the dialogue about it was frank, frustrating, and far from conclusive. At least two Americans – a Boston police officer and a Manhattan press secretary – left their jobs after chiming in, and even after the White House picnic, the two protagonists “agreed to disagree,” in Crowley’s words.
In short, there were no pat answers, no tying it up nicely with a bow on top. But the episode did provide a case study for Americans to begin to see at least one divisive issue – racial profiling – through the eyes of the other side.
“The left and the right have been arguing past each other for a long time, and the debate over the Gates case shows there’s really another way of looking at race: the ... tradition that makes the individual the measure,” says Jonathan Bean, author of the book “Race and Liberty in America.”
These fault lines are deep, and they played out predictably in the first days after Gates’s arrest. Many on the left backed Gates’s accusations of racial profiling and police bias. On the right, critics said Gates jumped to conclusions and assumed the worst about a white man.
Yet as details about the incident unwound, many Americans found they could see both sides of the encounter.
Susan Kachmar, who lives on a horse farm in rural Mondovi, Wis., saw fault on both sides. Gates lived up to the stereotype of the “angry black man,” she says in an e-mail. “He is a man with much to be proud of, but instead wears his success like a chip on his shoulder,” she writes.