It was astounding the other day to hear a national television pundit state unequivocally that Americans seldom talk about race, that there is no national dialogue on the subject. Has he been living on another planet or in a locked room with no contact with the outside world?
The fact is that we seem to talk about little else. Hardly a day passes without some incident that provokes a discussion about our national failure to adhere to the founders’ declaration that all men are created equal — hardly the truth from many aspects, but certainly a phrase with a nice ring to it. After all, some men and women are born rich, some bright, some dumb, some healthy, some not.
That, of course, is not what the Constitution’s writers meant, and when we talk about equality it is usually in the context of black and white and to some extent now, brown, if we wish to include the nation’s largest minority, Hispanics. The "good guys, bad guys" debate based on skin coloration has gone on since the founding and probably will continue until global warming or a meteorite wipes out all vestiges of a society thought to be history’s greatest example of government for and by the people.
There is no question that since the 1964 adoption of the great Civil Rights Act, things have gotten more equal and the tone of the rhetoric has cooled. But now and again along comes a Henry Louis Gates Jr., and a Sgt. James Crowley — a Harvard professor and a Cambridge police officer — and the argument about fair treatment and disrespect between the races once again is heard throughout the land at a fairly loud decibel made even more so by the voice of the president of the United States. Suddenly we are back roaring at full throttle about whether the professor would have been arrested in his own home by the white officer had the professor been white.
In this case, at least, there seems to be plenty of room to argue it flat or argue it round. A call that someone was trying to break into Gates’ home produced a legitimate inquiry by police. When it turned out to be Gates himself returning from vacation to find a stuck door, that should have been the end of it, after proper identification certainly. Crowley, an officer with no indication of racial bias — indeed he schooled fellow officers in how to avoid racial profiling — objected to what he described as Gates’ belligerent attitude, obviously born of a general black sensitivity to white police offenses through the ages. Crowley said he warned the professor to be civil to no avail and when he wasn’t, arrested him for disorderly conduct.
OK, now we have a major flap that was regional in nature until Barack Obama admittedly went overboard and called the Cambridge police stupid, a charge he hastily recanted the next day when he realized there are always two sides and that he had given the national media wonderful relief from reporting about his health program — a story that marches up and down so many hills without any progress that everyone involved has begun to shown signs of acute motion sickness. It was the consummate "hot weather" story, as we used to say in the newspaper business.
There is an overriding sense now that two intelligent human beings — the professor and the officer– actually did what often occurs when tempers flair, they let their emotions get in the way of common sense. As a result, both are placed in the awkward position of being partially right and partially wrong and having to defend themselves as wholly correct. Gates was disturbed by the police appearance at his door and Crowley by the fact the professor became verbally disrespectful because of it. Crowley should have tried to ignore the professor’s anger and walked away after having determined Gates was not a house burglar but the owner of the house.
In the best of all worlds, race should not have been a factor, but that is not the world we live in. Some racial incidents should provoke a national debate, others, like this one, hardly measure up.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)