The so called Beer Summit was a learning experience for us. At least it should have been. We shall see.
Of course we learned that the issue of race is alive and well in the United States, regardless of having elected a black president. Though the arrest itself might not have been motivated by race (might not), race imbued the issue of what otherwise would have been a well educated professional man arrested from his own home for making a police officer mad. That it was a white cop and a black Harvard professor became the defining element of this issue. A black police sergeant, Leon Lashley, who was at the scene reported that he has been referred to as “the black cop,” as well as an “Uncle Tom” for his support of Crowley. Another police officer, Justin Barrett, sent an e-mail referring to Dr. Gates as a “banana-eating jungle monkey,” though he swears this is not about race. Okay. Perhaps it’s about condoning police abuse as Barrett admitted that he would have “sprayed him [Gates] in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.”
Yes, race is still an issue. It’s moments like this that remind us that we still have a ways to go on race in the United States. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We need reminders, because otherwise it’s easy to put race on a back burner and pretend–despite the wealth of research and experience to the contrary–that racism is not a variable in our culture. In this case, we are reminded at the expense of a well known academic who will, after all, be just fine after this, rather than be reminded by the heartrending catastrophe that befell the poor people of New Orleans and the banks of the Mississippi during Katrina.
We also learned that our President, a man who most will admit makes few oratoracle mistakes, can put his foot in his mouth every once in a while. Though he never apologized, stating rather that that he could have “calibrated [his] words better,” and holding to his belief that the police over-reacted, Obama demonstrated that he was willing to recognize his own shortfalls and do his part to fix his mistakes. As a counselor and a teacher there have been many times in my career that I responded in such a way that could only make a bad situation worse. As the person in charge of my therapy group or my classroom, as President Obama is the leader of our nation, it was incumbent upon me to admit my mistakes and change course before the problems got worse. President Obama was willing to admit that his choice of words helped “ratchet up” the issue rather than cool it down and/or address it. As a good leader he changed course and found a way to make a molehill out of this quickly rising mountain. (contrast this with our last President)
The most important lesson of the beer summit, however, is what it says about the intersection between social policy and real life. The United States has many policies, paradigms, curricula and procedural rules for addressing historical inequities regarding race. From Affirmative Action to modified social studies curriculum to racial diversity training provided by police forces around the country, we are imbued with strategies for working toward a “post racial” society. These programs all have their strengths and weaknesses and a certain amount of turbulence in their application. But the bottom line is, that any effort to resolve racial, or racially inbued issues, boils down to real life individuals coming face to face with each other. No amount of social engineering can work without real life interaction on an equal footing among people who are willing to share their goals, their dreams and their disappointments…maybe over a beer, maybe through some other means.
Granted, a sit down with the President and Vice President is not really one of those meetings between real people, even if the President roles up his sleeves and loosens his tie. But the imagery is symbolic, and symbols carry meaning. To get past our socialized prejudices people with diverse racial, ethnic or cultural identities must interact on a regular basis on an equal footing and with equal input for setting goals and determining direction. When that happens we see tolerance and understanding develop. It was toward this end that the Beer Summit was a learning opportunity.
Perhaps Gates and Crowely can continue their discourse, and affect a public discourse about race that not only has meaning on the macro sociological level, but also on a personal level among real individuals.