Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gates & The Politics of Race

The Gates/Obama incident has been played and replayed many times over the past few days. A woman sees two men - one possibly Hispanic, the other of unknown ethnicity - trying to force in the back door of a residence that had been burglarized a week earlier. Police respond to a call of possible burglary in progress. By all accounts it is standard procedure when responding to such calls to ask any person who answers the door to step outside. If there is an invader in the home, this allows the police to secure the individual who answered the door, to remove them from any coercive threat, and insure they are not in harms way while the matter is resolved. Prof. Gates, a Professor of African American Studies at Harvard, immediately turned the incident into one of race. He was beligerent with the police from the outset, he refused their lawful order to step outside, and he told the police that they would not "do this to a white person." He was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Not a single individual of any ethnicity in the police dept. invovled has spoken out against the arresting officer or in support of Prof. Gates. To the contrary, they have been uniform in their support of the arresting officer's actions. But then there was President Obama who, at a press conference, pronounced the arrest of Prof. Gates "stupid," giving the implication that this was a racist act by the arresting officer. The result was a furor that had Obama back peddaling within days.

This is not a big incident. But I find it fascinating for what it tells us about the nation. I think it says several things:

- Our nation has progressed far towards the colorblind ideal since the dark days of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bull Conor.

- There was a time when playing the race card would be mean automatic free pass for the player of the card. White liberal guilt and intense pressure from the left combined to make playing the race card a sure winner. The Gates incident tells us that is no longer automatically true.

- The last step on the road to a truly post-racial America will be a dismanteling of affirmative action in all its aspects, creating a truly level playing field with actual acts of racism and reverse racism punished under the law. The highly publicized Ricci case focused attention on this in a way that had not occurred previously. If the polls in the wake of Ricci are any indication, that is the goal of most Americans.

- People expected Obama to be true to his word of promising to build a post racial America. Indeed, the symbolism of his Presidency, that it marks the triumph in America of equality over racism, will be the defining and most precious legacy of Obama's election. That is no doubt the reason why, when Obama took take sides in a "racial incident," it shocked much of the electorate who had taken him at his word.

Given the above, while the Gates incident itself is not of great significance, it foreshadows what may be one of the great ironies of the Obama presidency. His election, which marks the high water mark of identity politics, may also sound its death knell. Whether Obama actually meant to heal the "racial divide," his election may takes us the last few "longest yards" in spite of the substance of Obama and his Presidency. If America can collectively vote a black man as President, then objectively there is no longer a gaping racial divide. And with that, collective white guilt may well no longer be the prime driver in the politics of race. When that happens, perhaps the ideal of Martin Luther King Jr. will finally come to fruition. The writing is on the wall, it is only a matter of time.


OBloodyHell said...

I'll believe it when I see that, 6,9,12 months from now, Gates is left without an apology from the Cambridge PD and/or the officers at the scene.

Soccer Dad said...

One of the more remarkable things about this incident is President Obama's call for a "teachable moment."

It's not like 90% of whites voted for a less qualified candidate on account of his skin color. Who needs the "teachable moment?"

Dave Schuler said...

I'm surprised that no one seems to have mentioned Dr. Gates's field: African American Studies. For the last 30 years interest groups studies have routinely been venues for consciousness-raising and activism. How surprised should we be that Dr. Gates's consciousness has been raised (for him, everything is about race) and he's an activist.

OBloodyHell said...

> Who needs the "teachable moment?"


Clearly YOU do since you dispute your black massah, whitey.

You white boys need to learn your proper place, and show proper deference and respect to your racial superiors.