One ‘dialogue’ in a long conversation about race

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -The most intriguing moment in the confrontation between Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley was when Crowley came to understand that the man in the house was in fact who he said he was, that he was in his own home and that there had not been a break-in. What did Gates say or do, or not say or do, that pushed Crowley to charge him with disorderly conduct?

Police have said Gates was causing a public nuisance. Gates defenders insist that at that point, the officer should have turned his back and walked away.

Of course, only the two men will ever know all the facts, including the thoughts running through their heads.

It’s interesting that when respondents were asked in our recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll who they felt was most at fault in the incident, 27 percent said Gates was at fault, 11 percent said the police officer was at fault, 29 percent of respondents blamed them equally and 31 percent said they did not have enough information to form an opinion. (Question #35 in the poll.)

Personally, I have wrestled with these issues almost round the clock since July 16, when I started covering the story. And last night as I walked around Harvard Square, I was hoping that perhaps the spirit of one of the great university’s best thinkers might help me resolve some of my lingering questions. There have been lengthy discussions with producers and editors about what our stories should say, or not say. We all knew we were dealing with very sensitive stuff.

There are a few people who said things that stood out for me as I tried to explain the story, what it all means and what should perhaps be learned.

Follow the golden rule
Orlando Patterson has been a professor of sociology at Harvard for several decades. He is also African-American and is close to Gates. Interestingly he said that when he is out in public doing ordinary things and he is asked about his profession, most of the time he answers by saying he’s a teacher. Just a teacher. Not a Harvard professor.

Why? Because he thinks a lot of working-class whites aren’t used to dealing with middle class and more accomplished African-Americans.

At a time when there are anti-discrimination laws and numerous people of color have achieved professional success, Patterson insists it’s “the slights,” and perhaps even more so, the “perceived slights,” that explain most of the racial tension between blacks and whites.

It’s the cop who is rude. Or it’s the store clerk who seems to be not very enthusiastic about helping you. And at a different level, it’s not getting the promotion or the office you think you deserve. And of course, it’s getting pulled over while driving a nice looking car.

Patterson’s best guidance: “Follow the golden rule,” he said. Treat people from other ethnic groups as you treat people of your own group. Sounds easy, but of course it’s not. He also said that many African-Americans should learn to be “less sensitive.”

People need to get out of their ‘comfort zones’
Right next door lives his neighbor Priscilla McMillian, an activist and historian, who has lived in Cambridge most of her life. We were talking about the fact that Cambridge has an African-American female mayor. The state has one of nation’s few black governors – Gov. Deval Patrick. And of course, we now have a black president.

Still, McMillian, who is white, said there’s a big difference between accepting people of other races as public figures and accepting them in their personal life. She was trying to debunk the idea that America has become “post racial.”

In liberal Cambridge, she says there’s still not a lot of mixing. McMillian’s suggestion is that people spend more time outside of their comfort zone. “Because then,” she said, “you see people as individuals and not as stereotypes.”

About ‘race’ or ‘racism’?
The language of the Gates-Crowley dispute has been especially sensitive, especially the term “racial profiling.” As a matter of fact, I recently got an email from a frustrated viewer who asked why we so often say the issue is about “race” when it’s about “racism” or “discrimination” or words that are uglier and not as neutral as “race.” He was trying to make the point that people would understand the issue better if we really said what it is.

In this case, the term “racial profiling,” was used again and again. But as the situation escalated, this dispute wasn’t so much about “profiling,” as it was about behaviors that were perhaps racially insensitive. It seems when we do these stories, a central question becomes whether this person or that person is a “racist.”

And of course, once that label gets thrown out there, the rest of the conversation quickly deteriorates. As someone pointed out to me, it is possible for good, non-racist people, to still do things at certain times that someone might find offensive, or worse.

‘The 911 caller’
Finally, the person who made a very strong impression was Lucia Whalen, who became known as “the 911 caller.”

I could really feel her pain, as she stood on a grassy hillside in a public park the other day, trying to, as she put it, get her “integrity and her reputation” back.

Her voice trembled. Her hands shook. But she stood her ground. She had been accused of igniting the Gates-Crowley inferno by telling police she thought she saw “two black men with backpacks” breaking into the Gates home.

Those are words in a police report that Whalen insists she never said. And words that were not heard on the audio release of her call into 911. The police have never addressed the discrepancy. A local paper quoted an official who said the department “stands by” the report.

What was striking about Whalen was how visibly wounded she had been by this entire ordeal. She’d been threatened. Media harassed her. She was the villain in hiding until the police 911 tapes backed her version of events.

She had tried to be “careful and honest” with her words, as she put it. But those words got twisted and blown out of proportion. That, I guess is what racial tension can do.

Few weeks on a long road
At the end of the day, I’m still not sure what to make of all of this. Crowley and Gates probably privately regret a number of decisions they made.

Maybe they will share those thoughts with President Barack Obama, when they meet over perhaps the most anticipated glass of beer in this nation’s recent history. (Then again, perhaps they’ll drink straight out of the can or bottle. No detail has been too trivial regarding the “Beer Summit.”)

The nation had a “dialogue” about race relations as the drama played out over the past couple of weeks. We probably all better get used to it, and better at it.