Not Much of a Teachable Moment

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates one year ago today has been described as a "teachable moment." The past year has seen a lot of teaching, in the form of editorials, blog posts, presidential speeches, and official reports, but not much learning. 

The recent report by the Cambridge Review Committee recommends good-faith steps to increase empathy between police and community. I agree with the Committee's conclusion that both sides share responsibility for the arrest. Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley might have walked away without arresting the professor once he had confirmed his identity.  Professor Gates might have acted like a responsible adult rather than an adolescent radical with a chip on his shoulder.

The lead actors in the drama, however, have both said that given a second chance, they would have acted no differently. Gates and his lawyer, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, are especially intransigent, claiming that they alone possess the moral authority to stand at the anti-racism teaching podium. Ogletree remarked, for example, that it was "breathtaking and unbelievable" that the Committee would assign any responsibility whatsoever to his client. "The committee shifted a burden on him to do things that no other citizen should be asked to do," Ogletree said. "He did everything a citizen should do." Apparently it is too great a burden for an American citizen to treat a police officer investigating a potential burglary with respect; instead, the citizen should immediately start screaming at cops, calling them racists and accusing them of racial profiling.

The Gates arrest crystallized two opposing narratives about race in America. Supporters of Professor Gates interpret the arrest of a distinguished Harvard professor -- in his own home, no less -- for the crime of being black as a confirmation that the Cambridge Police Department remains a racist institution. If this can happen in liberal Cambridge -- surely among the least racist cities in the country -- imagine the racism festering in less enlightened zip codes. By extension, the American criminal justice system is racially biased, and by further extension, so is the entire country. According to this narrative, American racism is not a matter of a few unrepentant racists left over from Jim Crow days; the institutions of government, business, education, etc. are all biased. As Ogletree writes in his new book, Presumption of Guilt, "The arrest of Professor Gates is a reminder that we have a long way to go to live in a post-racial America" (117). And: "we should not be too eager to claim a victory over racism" (123).

Those of us on the other side observe that, to the contrary, the institutional racism of Jim Crow -- and certainly of legal slavery -- are ugly parts of our history that have little relevance in 2010. We must repudiate racist attitudes in individuals, but most of the efforts of the anti-racism industry are aimed at institutional racism that has largely disappeared: affirmative action in education, preferential hiring in business, corporate shakedowns for diversity programs, multicultural educational curricula that foster white guilt, and so forth. Their goal seems to be not moving toward "post-racial America," but a deepening of divisions along racial lines, which ultimately maintains the need and funding for their services. Consider, for example, that our schools now promote "separate but equal" racially divided graduations, initiations, reunions, fraternity houses, children of color lunches, and the like. Or consider that one of the major Hispanic activist groups bears the divisive name of La Raza, or "the race."

The United States is the least racist country in existence, but it is obviously not perfect. Ogletree's book offers a number of teachable moments -- "driving while black" stories that deserve to be taken seriously. Successful black men, CEOs, law firm partners, or high government appointees, impeccably dressed, driving expensive cars, describe being detained as a suspect in a drug deal or convenience store robbery -- an indication that the institutions of criminal justice are not entirely without bias. We should not abide that innocent men experience humiliation, temporary inconvenience, and lasting insecurity about future encounters with the police. Other of Ogletree's accounts are less consequential, stories where an ignorant individual assumes that all black men hold menial jobs, and confuses a well-dressed black man for the doorman -- unpleasant interactions, certainly, but only a totalitarian state can regulate every unpleasant interaction between individuals. One might further note that these very stories mitigate Ogletree's charges of institutional racism, given the extraordinary success in American institutions these men have achieved.

Unfortunately, Professor Gates is a poor choice to represent these victims of racial profiling. His belligerent and arrogant behavior disqualifies him from teaching the rest of us about racism. The Review Committee's report, an internal review by the Cambridge Police Department, and an analysis by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting all conclude that race did not play a role in the arrest. Gates's accusation that he was arrested because he's "a black man in America" has no credibility. 

The alleged racism of the Gates arrest is used not only to assess our current status, but, of greater concern, as a pretext for yet another big-government power-grab. It is true that a disproportionate number of black men are in prison. Conservatives argue that this is because they committed crimes, which in turn was abetted by welfare programs that undermine the black family. (See, for example, Myron Magnet's The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties Legacy to the Underclass, which describes the destructive effects of Great Society programs.) Thus, reducing welfare dependency will decrease what Ogletree describes as the "mass incarceration" of black men. 

Ogletree, however, argues the opposite: that black men are in prison because of the racism of the criminal justice system and the economic injustice that is a legacy of slavery. This can be remedied only by expanding the welfare state. Ogletree imagines a massive redistribution of wealth and describes what passes for debate on the far left: Should wealth be redistributed with "universalistic focus on class" (taking from the rich and giving to the poor) favored by President Obama? Or with "particularistic emphasis on race" -- taking from whites and giving to communities of color (Ogletree, 123)?

Ogletree's dreams of wealth redistribution make me wonder if perhaps he's right -- we do have a long way to go.
The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates one year ago today has been described as a "teachable moment." The past year has seen a lot of teaching, in the form of editorials, blog posts, presidential speeches, and official reports, but not much learning. 

The recent report by the Cambridge Review Committee recommends good-faith steps to increase empathy between police and community. I agree with the Committee's conclusion that both sides share responsibility for the arrest. Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley might have walked away without arresting the professor once he had confirmed his identity.  Professor Gates might have acted like a responsible adult rather than an adolescent radical with a chip on his shoulder.

The lead actors in the drama, however, have both said that given a second chance, they would have acted no differently. Gates and his lawyer, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, are especially intransigent, claiming that they alone possess the moral authority to stand at the anti-racism teaching podium. Ogletree remarked, for example, that it was "breathtaking and unbelievable" that the Committee would assign any responsibility whatsoever to his client. "The committee shifted a burden on him to do things that no other citizen should be asked to do," Ogletree said. "He did everything a citizen should do." Apparently it is too great a burden for an American citizen to treat a police officer investigating a potential burglary with respect; instead, the citizen should immediately start screaming at cops, calling them racists and accusing them of racial profiling.

The Gates arrest crystallized two opposing narratives about race in America. Supporters of Professor Gates interpret the arrest of a distinguished Harvard professor -- in his own home, no less -- for the crime of being black as a confirmation that the Cambridge Police Department remains a racist institution. If this can happen in liberal Cambridge -- surely among the least racist cities in the country -- imagine the racism festering in less enlightened zip codes. By extension, the American criminal justice system is racially biased, and by further extension, so is the entire country. According to this narrative, American racism is not a matter of a few unrepentant racists left over from Jim Crow days; the institutions of government, business, education, etc. are all biased. As Ogletree writes in his new book, Presumption of Guilt, "The arrest of Professor Gates is a reminder that we have a long way to go to live in a post-racial America" (117). And: "we should not be too eager to claim a victory over racism" (123).

Those of us on the other side observe that, to the contrary, the institutional racism of Jim Crow -- and certainly of legal slavery -- are ugly parts of our history that have little relevance in 2010. We must repudiate racist attitudes in individuals, but most of the efforts of the anti-racism industry are aimed at institutional racism that has largely disappeared: affirmative action in education, preferential hiring in business, corporate shakedowns for diversity programs, multicultural educational curricula that foster white guilt, and so forth. Their goal seems to be not moving toward "post-racial America," but a deepening of divisions along racial lines, which ultimately maintains the need and funding for their services. Consider, for example, that our schools now promote "separate but equal" racially divided graduations, initiations, reunions, fraternity houses, children of color lunches, and the like. Or consider that one of the major Hispanic activist groups bears the divisive name of La Raza, or "the race."

The United States is the least racist country in existence, but it is obviously not perfect. Ogletree's book offers a number of teachable moments -- "driving while black" stories that deserve to be taken seriously. Successful black men, CEOs, law firm partners, or high government appointees, impeccably dressed, driving expensive cars, describe being detained as a suspect in a drug deal or convenience store robbery -- an indication that the institutions of criminal justice are not entirely without bias. We should not abide that innocent men experience humiliation, temporary inconvenience, and lasting insecurity about future encounters with the police. Other of Ogletree's accounts are less consequential, stories where an ignorant individual assumes that all black men hold menial jobs, and confuses a well-dressed black man for the doorman -- unpleasant interactions, certainly, but only a totalitarian state can regulate every unpleasant interaction between individuals. One might further note that these very stories mitigate Ogletree's charges of institutional racism, given the extraordinary success in American institutions these men have achieved.

Unfortunately, Professor Gates is a poor choice to represent these victims of racial profiling. His belligerent and arrogant behavior disqualifies him from teaching the rest of us about racism. The Review Committee's report, an internal review by the Cambridge Police Department, and an analysis by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting all conclude that race did not play a role in the arrest. Gates's accusation that he was arrested because he's "a black man in America" has no credibility. 

The alleged racism of the Gates arrest is used not only to assess our current status, but, of greater concern, as a pretext for yet another big-government power-grab. It is true that a disproportionate number of black men are in prison. Conservatives argue that this is because they committed crimes, which in turn was abetted by welfare programs that undermine the black family. (See, for example, Myron Magnet's The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties Legacy to the Underclass, which describes the destructive effects of Great Society programs.) Thus, reducing welfare dependency will decrease what Ogletree describes as the "mass incarceration" of black men. 

Ogletree, however, argues the opposite: that black men are in prison because of the racism of the criminal justice system and the economic injustice that is a legacy of slavery. This can be remedied only by expanding the welfare state. Ogletree imagines a massive redistribution of wealth and describes what passes for debate on the far left: Should wealth be redistributed with "universalistic focus on class" (taking from the rich and giving to the poor) favored by President Obama? Or with "particularistic emphasis on race" -- taking from whites and giving to communities of color (Ogletree, 123)?

Ogletree's dreams of wealth redistribution make me wonder if perhaps he's right -- we do have a long way to go.