Beware those who think race explains everything

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 2, 2009

For some people, everything is about race.

Some of them are white people. Some of them are black people. The race component in any situation is all they need to know to form their conclusions.

Henry Louis Gates’ whole life has been about race.

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For him, that’s altogether fitting and proper because Gates, who is black, is a Harvard academic who has made scholarly investigation of racial inequity in America his career.

So it wasn’t too surprising that Gates received the questions of a white Cambridge policeman, responding to a burglary in progress call, with self-righteous indignation — or that the situation deteriorated from there.

Nothing makes better TV than conflict and racial conflict trumps all the other varieties short of blood and gore. So after Gates was handcuffed and arrested for what’s called “loud and tumultuous behavior in a public place” in Massachusetts and “disorderly conduct” in Mississippi, the gabfest channels went for ratings bonanzas by offering instant analysis of “what this all means.”

President Barack Obama, at least initially, didn’t make things better. One would think the president would have more pressing topics, but when asked about the criminal charge against Gates, a friend of the president’s, Obama said he didn’t know the details, but that the police “acted stupidly.”

Later, the president got everybody involved in the affray at the White House for a beer.

That was a great idea.

Race matters in America for two reasons.

The first one is obvious. In the same way that an Ole Miss cap or a Jackson State sweatshirt provide a smidgen of preliminary information, skin color does, too. It’s impossible not to notice a person’s skin color the same way size, general age, gender (usually) and clothing are noticed.

The next reason is the truth that for most of America’s history, black people have been locked out, treated as exceptions not worthy of the basic human freedoms and opportunities on which the nation was founded. So there’s anger. And there’s guilt. Suspicion, too.

Now the trick, if there is one, is to accept the historical disparity and then get past any initial impressions or at least understand how misleading they can be.

Remember, objectively speaking, it was the color of Sgt. James Crowley to which Professor Gates first reacted. Had a black police officer approached him, explained that he was checking out a “suspicious person” call in the neighborhood and asked for identification, Gates’ reaction might not have been that he was being profiled or that his crime was “being black in America.”

Gates, by the way, is familiar with Mississippi. Some of his work has involved tracing ancestries of black families for the PBS “African American Lives” series. On the shows, he used scant records — including wills in which slaves were among the property being distributed — to enlighten notable black Americans such as Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman on their lineage. The records, Gates conceded, showed a mixed record of disdain and respect for people in bondage. Some were treated like so much rubbish. Others were deeded land, trusted with the owners’ money, engaged to raise and teach their owners’ children.

And that speaks to the larger point that throughout history and today there are white people who are kind, generous, accommodating, energetic and wise just as there are white people who are lazy, vile, mean-spirited, goofy and greedy. And there are black people who are thugs, liars, thieves and worse just as there are black people who are selfless, geniuses, innovative, caring … on and on. All the adjectives we use to describe character traits are demonstrably race-neutral. No race has cornered the market on good. No race has cornered the market on evil.

Now the TV talkers exploit these situations as do those, including politicians and even preachers of all colors, to gain advantage — even to profit.

In so doing they create another generation of people far too quick to put race ahead of all other considerations, people for whom race explains everything. White people can’t be trusted. Black people want everything given to them. White people always stick together. Black people always stick together. We’ve all heard all the stereotypes.

Mississippi, which has the worst legacy of racial division, still has the closest black-white numerical demographic of any state. For that reason, this state could be the laboratory in which a new day dawns.

It will have to start with recognizing that Henry Louis Gates, smart as he is, made a fool’s error. He let an initial glance escalate into a conclusion.

Race doesn’t explain everything all the time.

Those who insist it does poison our generation, and generations to come, too.