Why Race Still Resonates

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009; 9:22 AM

Out of deference to Sarah Palin, I will not be "making stuff up" in today's column.

Why has the racial debate surrounding the Gates arrest seemingly grown louder and more insistent by the day? Even now, a week later, the blogs and talk shows are still hashing it over, with occasional interruptions for Palin's finger-in-the-eye farewell to the media Sunday and -- what was that other issue we used to care about? -- health care.

I mean, now that Skip Gates and James Crowley have agreed to guzzle beer at the White House -- can an Oprah appearance be far behind? -- the thing is kind of over and we can all move on, right?

Well, no. First, there's one of Kurtz's laws of media physics: A cable-fueled controversy continues to percolate until another blowup of equal force and ratings potential surfaces to take its place. If a Michael Jackson dies, everything else gets blown out of the water.

But I believe Gates-gate has mushroomed into a larger debate that is no longer limited to the particulars of the disorderly-conduct arrest in Cambridge. Everywhere I go, ordinary folks are chatting about it. I was deluged with questions and comments during yesterday's online chat.

The discussion now is about race and class and privilege and law enforcement. It's about society and stereotypes and history -- a history in which too many minorities have been stopped and hassled by too many Caucasian cops. It's about the difference when someone prominent is subjected to the same indignities as others of the same race or ethnicity. And, of course, it's about the president, whether he should have waded into the matter involving his friend, professed surprise that his remarks triggered a firestorm, and then expressed regret for fueling the "media frenzy."

This is one of those gut issues that just feel different to African American journalists, a number of whom continue to write about their own past run-ins with the police. The latest is columnist Leonard Pitts, who says that Gates looks "like me, with hands up and a rifle trained on my chest by an officer who later claimed he stopped me in that predominantly white neighborhood for a traffic violation. . . . We all look alike."

Maybe, on some level, this debate is healthy, though I'm sure Skip Gates would rather have gotten into his house unmolested. The punditry, meanwhile, still revolves around Obama.

Hot off the presses: The beer (Bud? Michelob? Heineken?) is on tap:

"White House aides are downplaying expectations that the beer summit that Obama suggested last week will produce a resolution," the Chicago Tribune reports.

"It's set for Thursday, an administration official confirmed Monday night. Both Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. have agreed to come. That means Obama is on the hook to achieve some kind of agreement."

So will this be the diplomatic equivalent of the Camp David accords?

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