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’?

Alex Brandon/AP
Get-together: President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met July 30 at the White House with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. (second from left) and Sgt. James Crowley.

President Obama may have sensed the country’s mood when he picked the spot to discuss race in America. Not a hall, convention center, TV studio, or even the Oval Office.

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.

But she also saw in the police a brook-no-criticism response: They “are like a large extended family that looks after each other and does not let anybody else in,” she adds.

She, like many other Americans, was called upon to be a jury of one.

“The American people have to do exactly what jurors do in lawsuits: Step back, listen to all the facts, and draw some conclusions,” says Denise Drake, a labor lawyer in Kansas City, Mo.

Their verdict, according to a July 27 Rasmussen poll, is that the country is doing a good job of listening to all sides. Some 69 percent of respondents said the country is “fair and decent.”

In New York’s Brooklyn, sales associate Scott Chisholm, who is white, sees some progress. “I definitely think we’re getting better at [talking about race],” he says. “[But] I don’t think we’re where we need to be right now, that’s for sure.”

In general, white Americans are increasingly finding their public voice on race, says Ward Connerly, director of the American Civil Rights Institute, which advocates banning racial preferences.

“Until now, the debate was being driven by people like Professor Gates. Now, whites are far more willing to say what they believe,” he says.

In some cases, that outspokenness had a dark side – and the speakers paid a price. A Boston police officer provided the most egregious example, dropping “jungle monkey” into a mass e-mail about Gates. He was placed on administrative leave last week.

In New York, Lee Landor, a deputy press secretary for Manhattan’s borough president, resigned last week after calling Obama “O-dumb-a” and appearing to defend racial profiling on her Facebook page. “Racial profiling does exist, but for good reason,” she wrote. “Take a look at this country’s jails: who makes up the majority of inmates? Exactly.”

Ms. Landor says the uproar over her opinions shows that the media, especially, prevent frank talk. “The media perpetuate this whole ‘sensitive, untouchable subject thing’ around race,” she said by phone.

She hopes that people learn from what happened to her.

“For all of this to go to waste, for so many people – my family – to be hurt and it just to be a public spectacle, it would be a shame,” she says. “Like Obama said, it is a teachable moment. We have to let go of that defensiveness and ... speak with the intention of sharing and solving.”

Brooklynite Chantz Jones, who is black, sees limits too, but from the opposite perspective.

“The only time race comes up is when there’s an incident,” says Mr. Jones. “This is something we always had, so why would you only deal with it when there’s an incident?”

His take on the current debate: four men at a picnic table, with reporters standing by. “If y’all gonna let us be heard, let us be heard for real,” he says.

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