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The Gates Case and 'Teachable Moments' on Race

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, July 30, 2009

The problem with "teachable moments" is that the term sets up one group of people as teachers while another group is consigned to the role of pupils. In a democracy, that's troublesome.

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In the conflict between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and police Sgt. James Crowley over Gates's arrest at his home, all parties in the national conversation believe they should be the teachers. The theme is, "No, you listen to me!"

Everybody seems to want to teach the need for respect: the respect white police officers owe to black men and the respect Harvard professors ought to show to cops doing their jobs.

It was the perfect moment for professor Barack Obama to try to explain everything to everyone. That is why -- after first stumbling into the controversy on Gates's side -- he backed off, arguing that there was plenty of right and wrong to go around, and inviting Gates and Crowley to sit down with each other at the White House.

Here's a thoughtful reading all three men should consult. The writer, who happens to be African American, insisted that "the task for black America is not to get its symbols in shape: Symbolism is one of the few commodities we have in abundance."

Instead, this writer warned about "a discourse in which everyone speaks of payback and nobody is paid," and concluded that "the result is that race politics becomes a court of the imagination wherein blacks seek to punish whites for their misdeeds and whites seek to punish blacks for theirs, and an infinite regress of score-settling ensues."

Exactly right, and Skip Gates won't have to do the reading since he wrote those words in the New Yorker in 1995.

I use "Skip" because I have known Gates for about 35 years. I have long admired him for his prodigious work ethic and for the nuance and thoughtfulness of his writing and scholarship.

I want Gates to bring this story to an end, both for the reasons he laid out so well himself, and for another. He knows as well as anyone that there is nothing more destructive to the hope for justice and equality than a fight that rips across the lines of class and race.

Since everybody seems to turn autobiographical during these "teachable moments," I will exercise my right to do so, too. From the time I was in college in the late 1960s and early '70s, I have been incensed at the elitism so often shown by privileged liberals toward the white working class. And I felt this as someone on the left.

I wrote a doctoral dissertation inspired by that concern, and the current controversy led me down memory lane, through college newspaper archives, to see whether my recollection of my earlier views matched reality. For what it's worth, here's what I wrote in 1973, the year I graduated from college:

"What is most disturbing about conservative attacks on the student left is that many of the charges were right on the mark. The student left often did come to be characterized by its own forms of elitism and intellectual arrogance. . . .

"Even more pernicious and divisive were race issues. It is clear, of course, that black demands for political and economic equality are justified . . . [but] the way these issues developed . . . served to estrange the working class white from the movement for equality. White workers rebelled because they felt they were being forced to pay an inequitable share of the costs of equality. . . . Sadly, whites who protested against being singled out were too often attacked as racists. . . . In the end, the losers were those who had the greatest stake in social reform -- white workers, blacks and the student left."

I risk the indulgence of quoting my younger self to suggest that we have been watching this same game for too long. It's a game that always turns out badly for those seeking equality and social reform. At the time he was asked to comment on Gates, Obama was trying to make the case for universal health coverage -- for the largest step toward greater social justice since civil rights and Medicare -- and it took only the single word "stupidly" to send everyone scurrying back to that "infinite regress of score-settling."

Sgt. Crowley should not have arrested Gates, as the police implicitly acknowledged by dropping the charges. But Gates knows that this police officer with a good record is not the enemy. Let's end the score-settling right now.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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