The National Conversation Revisited (Joe)

3 Aug


I was hesitant to mention the Gates-Crowley episode.  In some ways it is complicated example  amongst many more obvious examples of racial profiling throughout the country.  But as one of a number of recent events that have popped the perennial question about race relations in this peculiar “age of Obama” perhaps its worth consideration.  Whether its this arrest, or the nomination of Judge Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, or the Affirmative Action case involving Boston firefighters, clearly there is public concern and confusion about what to do with issues of “diversity” in 21st century, recession laden America. 

Let’s briefly look at the swirl of attention given the Gates-Crowley incident.  The arrest of Professor Gates by a Cambridge office on his own property caught the attention of the nation.  For African Americans who have a storied and infamous history with police forces throughout the country, the arrest aroused suspicion, understandably so. 

 For those Americans who do not harbor such supicions, this story felt like much ado about nothing.  The usual suspects raised the usual issues of racial profiling, racial weariness, and police power.   These are certainly not frivolous concerns.  They may indeed have played in this unfolding drama.  But they are not the whole story.  One thing that strikes me when you consider the two men’s professional profiles is that beyond their racial identification, they are both men of power and privilege.  My guess is neither a tenured Harvard professor or a decorated police officer that carries a loaded weapon are used to having their authority or decisions questioned.  However what is a privilege in one setting and easily be a liability in another, especially when concerns about a possible crime heighten the anxiety. 

Another angle to this story that was underreported was the position of Lucia Whalen.  The tapes from her 911 call on the suspected break-in called into question Crowley’s police report.  While the police commissioner said the report was simply a ‘summary of events,’ most people expect a police report to be thorough, substantiated and without error.   Whalen openly and through her attorney denies Crowley’s report that she identified the subjects as black.  Of course you don’t have to be DWB to realize police officers don’t always get it right, just watch a few episodes of Law & Order. 

While it may not have been the his most erudite statement or brightest political move, President Obama’s reponse was from my perspective uncharacteristically dull, falling back on our national propensity to have conversations about race. 

Obama’s conversational tone highlights some growing generational differences to dealing with issues of race/ethnicity.   Babyboomers really began en masse this idea of dialoguing about race.   The approach has been their generation’s worthy contribution to America’s toolkit for dealing with its diversity.   Through broadcast media, townhalls and organizational training they have nobly attempted to bridge the segregated world they were born into and the multicultural world they ended up leading.  Professor Gates acknowledges this is his excellent 1997 book, “The Future of the Race”  when he notes:

For so many of my generation, that leap was one that took us from our black homes and neighborhoods into the white universities that had adopted newly vigorous programs of minority recruitment  It should be said that the adjustment was a two way street.  We were as strange to the institutions in which we found ourselves as those institutions were to us.  In short, we were part of a grand social experiment. …you might call us the crossover generation.

Many Gen Xers have found themselves in similar positions, and as social and professional pioneers on the racial landscape they have a similar affinity for the power of a conversation.  As a millenial though, if we are the same kind of people.   Will our experience as the most diverse and socially integrated generation of Americans yet, birth a new ways of perceiving and engaging cultural diversity?  

Judge Sotomayor’s 2003 speech, much villified in the MSM, where she states her hope that a “wise Latina” would make decisions on the bench that could rival her white male counterparts, also reveals the same shortcoming of the generation in power’s current approach to race.  I’ve read her entire speech and what it dances around, but never really provides great insight into exactly what constitutes the perspective of a wise Latina and what bearing does it have upon decision making in a court of law, or for that matter in any deliberative body. 

Yes I believe there is wisdom to be found in such a heritage.  The formation of identity and the lessons of racial experience have much to teach.  But the rigorous examination of identity for the sake of a public good is a different feat altogether.  It’s one that Gen Xers not every person who has such experiences examines them or cares to do so.  As a millenial who has engaged cross-culturally almost all my life, I’m left hungering for a deeper reflection.

 The “come let us reason with one another” tactics of our parents and grandparents are becoming threadbare.  Conversation on its own cannot bear the weight of keeping diversity issues in the forefront of public consciousness or advancing the work of reconciliation.    We are a generation that has been worn out on the power of words.  We have heard the arguments from their black, white and shades of gray angles.  This millenial generation is skeptical of tropes and suspicious of diatribes.  Mere discussion does not move our souls.   

We prefer action with a side of reflection to go please.  As the saying goes, we “act our way into new ways of thinking.” Many of us long  to build the communities that will be exemplars of a complex and vibrant cultural diversity.   These are the kinds of intimate communities that transcend background, the ones we have stumbled upon in the course of childhood, schooling, and work.  To do that would mean nothing less than upending the stilted economy of race our nation has supported.

But any new wisdom and knowledge that millenials bring to bear on the methods of racial reconciliation must acknowledge what we are up against.  Let me close with a thought from Frank Rich of the New York Times in his most recent column.   

The one lesson that everyone took away from the latest “national conversation about race” is the same one we’ve taken away from every other “national conversation” in the past couple of years. America has not transcended race. America is not postracial. So we can all say that again. But it must also be said that we’re just at the start of what may be a 30-year struggle. Beer won’t cool the fury of those who can’t accept the reality that America’s racial profile will no longer reflect their own.

Rich rather prophetically points out the nature of struggles ahead, but unfortunately falls back on either/or thinking.  America is either postracial or it’s not he says.  What if it is AND it isn’t?  The race pioneers of the babyboomers and Gen Xers are still with us.  What’s more, they will also find counterparts in the Millenial generation.  There are many youth in this country still breaking the colorline.  For every young African American like me that has been immersed in cultural diversity since birth, there are many others who are just now breaking into that other world.  And yet, there are so many stories, many untold of ways in which American life has transcended its traditional dualities around race.  It doesn’t mean race has gone away, but that it has been complicated, disturbed and transformed by a confluence of cultural factors pinching at American life.  We are many Americas.  As the 21st century breaks into stride, it is uncertain which our nation’s quest for reconciliation will unfold.  But I hope those of us who have been profoundly shaped by cross-cultural America will respecting those whose experience differs, nevertheless choose to reflect deeply, builder strongly and lead the way.

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