Gatesgate, the latest incident to pull back the veil on the persistence of racism, institutional and otherwise, in the United States, continues to draw a great deal of attention (especially with the release of the boring 911 transcript), among the latest this patently ridiculous article on which beer the President might choose when Henry Louis Gates and his arresting officer, James Crowley, meet at the White House for a drink. Will it be Crowley’s preferred Blue Moon (owned by the conservative Coors family)? Boston’s Sam Adams? Chicago’s Goose Island? Who cares?
Of more interest is, well, the amount of interest. Gates’s semi-celebrity and friendship with the President meant that we actually heard about this story, which most of the media agrees is a teachable moment (a google search for “henry louis gates” and “teachable moment” yields millions of results).
Opposing the ignorant but well-meaning people who have welcomed this latest reminder that we are not living in a post-racial society (and who may even think that would be a good thing), are people like James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal, who, if he had read William Chafe’s Civilities and Civil Rights might not have scolded Gates for being “uncivil.”
The nagging question is whether yet another teachable moment, if it remains a moment, is enough to teach white Americans that African Americans, especially men, experience suspicion by police and other authority figures all the time. As one author at The Root (an online magazine launched by Gates himself) put it:
It’s not a stretch for many white people, or black people for that matter, to visualize a young black man, especially one from an inner-city neighborhood or who is dressed a particular way (think baggy jeans, oversized T-shirt, baseball cap) getting stopped, questioned, arrested, etc., by white policemen. You’d have to live in a cave to not have witnessed this taking place at least once on the evening news, in movies, on streets and highways. What is harder for many white people to understand is that this happens all the time, to all sorts of black people, but particularly black men, no matter what they are wearing, no matter their station in life and no matter the kind of car they drive.
(It’s not just white police officers, either. Historian Eliot Rudnick wrote (in “The Negro Policeman in the South”) that when, after years of urging by black communities, black officers began to join police forces, they tended to treat black suspects more harshly than their white counterparts. Sometimes, white officers’ assumptions about black criminality actually made them more lenient; black officers’ frustration with black crime impelled them to react angrily.)
The treatment of African Americans by police officers remains hard for whites to understand because the wake-up calls come intermittently, after a nice snooze. Historians and other scholars of civil rights, who are beginning to take up this issue again, can play a part in keeping the rest of us awake.