Debating race is a true American pastime

Where's Rodney King when you need him? Ever since Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested last week for disorderly conduct after breaking into his own home, I've been thinking a lot about King...

Where’s Rodney King when you need him?

Ever since Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested last week for disorderly conduct after breaking into his own home, I’ve been thinking a lot about King, who was brutally assaulted and arrested in 1991 by four L.A. cops. Of course, Gates’ arrest pales in comparison to King’s, but it nevertheless peels back another layer of America’s obsession with race. Right now, I’d venture to bet that a producer at some network is booking King for a talk show where he’s likely to weigh in on the Gates arrest. His likely comment: “Can’t we all get over it?”

Nope. With a black man in the White House and people of all racial and ethnic categories hanging on his every word and reaction to any race-related issue, these are truly “mid-racial” times with no sight of a different hyphenate to describe race relations for years to come. And while the Obama White House is taking steps in the right direction, until our obsession with race gets satiated (can it?), no amount of Obama’s playing Twister with his sound-bites will make a difference to the American people. Why? Because debating race is, and has always been, the true American pastime. Like an itchy scab, we just can’t leave it alone. The media won’t let us.

The media loves a good fight, especially across color and class fault lines, and so it never takes much for a story like this one to elicit a reporting spree. Every day since the Gates story broke, it has consistently ranked as the number one or two positions on Google’s “Top Stories” page. Meanwhile, according to Center for American Progress Action Fund, approximately 14,000 Americans are losing healthcare coverage each day, and millions more around the world are clamoring for their stories to be told.

The networks will continue to regularly weigh-in on, counter, and spin headline-grabbing stories at the expense of reporting on more imperative news such as the global economic meltdown, two wars, the threat of an nuclear arms race in the Middle East, mounting terrorist forces, the swine flu pandemic, domestic social issues, and more. When you look at the bigger picture, one must ask: While the Gates incident is certainly a barometer of how far we still have to go with race relations, how much airtime does a small town quarrel really deserve?

For far too many folks, the media continues to dictate what we discuss over dinner, at the barbershop, and nowadays, more than likely, on Facebook. And despite the shuffling of the new media deck, the rule “if it bleeds, it leads” (read: divides, angers, causes controversy) still dominates from far-flung blogosphere outposts to mainstream social networks. Still, putting the race-baiting sensationalism aside, the media can’t be singularly blamed for highlighting the inherent flaws in our democracy.

Until we really come to grips with the ever-widening racial and social-economic disparities in America, stories like the righteous black professor versus the power-wielding white police officer will continue to be exploited and used as grist meal for the distracted, media-hungry masses.

Photo: President Obama speaks about Police Sgt. James Crowley and Henry Louis Gates Jr., July 24, 2009 (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)