History and Race: The Gates Affair

I believe Obama sincerely tried to bridge the gap between reality and rhetoric but failed in the end because to do so would have divided us. Presidential campaigns are about uniting people -- uniting by fear, by promise of economic or some other gain, by dint of personal perceptions of the candidate. They are not about dividing people. Obama got high marks for that speech for even mentioning slavery in the context that it is a burden we carry as Americans -- to make the words in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution resonate with truth rather than echo with hypocrisy:

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution -- a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part -- through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk -- to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This is the nub of the matter and is what keeps the races from engaging in a real conversation about what separates us. Whites are unable to reconcile their belief in the Constitution as the perfect expression of the American mind with its obvious faults in incorporating chattel slavery into its body. Failing to acknowledge the hypocrisy inherent in American history (and down to this day) keeps the white race slaves to what we used to call a "false consciousness."

Blacks are unable to view white America through any other medium except the chains of their ancestors, which colors their perceptions of "progress" in politics and culture toward equality and gives them a ready-made excuse for failure. It also allows them to manipulate the system through the very effective means of piling guilt upon those whites predisposed to show their solidarity with African Americans, as well as burdening the rest of us with the inability to honestly confront the racial divide because the code will not allow us to pile on the victims of our historic oppression.

These are conversations that have taken place separately within the races but rarely between them. Obama has circled around some of these issues but has never directly addressed them as witnessed by his "stupid police" comment concerning the arrest of Henry Louis Gates.

The facts of the case are a fascinating example of how race divides America. Police, as authority figures, have a notorious history in African American communities -- sometimes deserved, sometimes not. It appears from unimpeachable eyewitness accounts that in this case, despite Sgt. Crowley being an expert in how to avoid racial profiling and diversity training, the perception on the part of Professor Gates was that he was being singled out for being black.

Of course, Gates had no idea that Officer Crowley had such a stellar reputation or possessed such tolerant credentials. All he knew was his experience as a black man in America and his assumption that if he had been white, the police would not have asked for his ID.

We'll never know if that assumption was correct. Just as we'll never know if the anonymous woman who called the police after seeing Gates try to break into his own home would have done so if she had glimpsed a white man trying to do the same thing. We can assume the best or the worst from all involved and, within the context of our flawed understanding of each other, assure ourselves that we are correct.

The point being, all the actors in this little drama have their perception of the incident colored by what divides us. The actions of everyone were programmed by the rules under which we currently interact as white and black Americans. Gates felt his dignity attacked -- an anathema to whites who can't understand how he could fail to appreciate the police looking after his property. For his part, one might wonder how much more patient Crowley could have or should have been with Gates before arresting him. No doubt he acted professionally. But even with someone as evenhanded as Crowley apparently is, the nagging suspicion that if Gates had been white he would have somehow been treated differently is hard for many to shake. That is the trap that history has set for us and is one from which we refuse to release ourselves.

For the president to inject himself into this debate without facts, without direct knowledge of what occurred, was politically stupid but culturally understandable. He also must play by the rules of engagement by which we all live. Is it really so surprising that his first reaction would have been to defend Gates and condemn the police? Perhaps we should demand better of our president. But if the rest of us are not going to demand better of ourselves, why should Obama be any different?

I think Obama really believed he could be a "post-racial" president. It's also obvious from this controversy that it is a lot more difficult than he imagined. Shedding 300 years of history takes more than the affirmation at the polls President Obama received last November. It will take, above all else, the recognition by both black and white that the past -- both the oppression and the guilt and rage our history engenders -- must be a prologue to a future that rises above what divides us by connecting to what unites us.