Gates case: What's race got to do with it?

A predominately white segment of America sees the incident as further evidence that the country is becoming a post-racial society. Many blacks disagree.

Thursday night, President Obama will welcome Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Crowley to the White House in what he hopes will be a "teachable moment" on race in America.

Yet for many Americans – and especially segments of white America – the primary lesson of Professor Gates's July 16 arrest is that race never was a real issue in the case.

The arresting police sergeant accused of being a racist – Crowley – taught racial profiling awareness courses, it turned out. The woman who made the 911 call to report what she thought might be a break-in didn't say anything about Gates being African-American.

A movement is afoot to move the nation beyond race, and it has found voice in the Gates incident, where Gates's allegation that he was disrespected and eventually arrested by Crowley only because he is black has yet to find firm corroborating evidence.

But it is also taking form in a surge in reverse-discrimination lawsuits – like the one recently before the US Supreme Court – that seek to wipe away what critics say are the consequences of affirmative action: jobs where "no whites need apply."

To many blacks, the idea that America is "post-racial" is ludicrous. They note how subtly the phrase "two black men" found its way into Crowley's police report.

But the character of the national debate about Gates and Crowley hints at a shift in America's conversation on race.

"We've reached a point where white males are saying, 'We've done all that we need to do in terms of treating black people with kid gloves and giving them deference. Now let's do what's right regardless of race,' " says Ward Connerly, director of the American Civil Rights Institute, who is black.

On the Gates incident, these people agree with Christopher Hitchens, who writes on "Professor Gates should have taken his stand on the Bill of Rights and not on his epidermis or that of the arresting officer, and, if he didn't have the presence of mind to do so, that needn't inhibit the rest of us."

More broadly, they point to the election of a black president. In the workplace, a sort of civil rights movement in reverse is in the offing. Complaints by whites of "reverse discrimination" have risen by 45 percent during the past 10 years. These cases represent nearly 11 percent of the caseload of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The impetus is economic as well as ideological. "With this economy, you might raise your eyebrow a little more quickly because there's not another job right around the corner available for you," says Denise Drake, a labor attorney with Spencer, Fane, Britt & Browne in Kansas City, Mo.

Cleveland-based culture critic Jimi Izrael scoffs at the idea that whites and blacks can now see the world through the same eyes. He notes that he was once arrested for disorderly conduct for mouthing off to a cop.

"White people think police are there to protect and serve," says Mr. Izrael. "Black people know better."

But what the Gates affair has done – and what Mr. Obama hopes to further Thursday – is help the nation defuse racial tensions by seeing both sides of the issue.

"When Obama is talking about a teachable moment ... he's saying that we need to see [events] from the other guy's point of view in order to come to a better understanding of how to evaluate the situation," says Deborah Hellman, author of the book, "When Is Discrimination Wrong?"


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