Beers and Handshakes at the White House

How did a “post-racial” black president with extraordinary empathy, an exemplary police officer who specializes in racial profiling, and one of the country’s great scholars on race relations crash into each other on the topic of race?

Maureen Dowd chalked it up to a “town vs. gown” clash of egos, which feels too simplistic. As does Obama’s attribution of stupidity.  One clear sign of a systemic problem, we’ve learned in our business, is the folks at the top blaming errant, front-line employees.

A typical organization works to get average inputs to create excellence.  In this case, excellent inputs created a massive service failure, which means that the system is probably broken.  Learning occurs when we understand why reasonable people make the choices they do, so let’s give the principals here – the professor, the cop and the President — the benefit of the doubt, and see where it lands us.

Here’s my quick accounting.  The cop thought he was interrupting a burglary.  As a white person, he had the luxury of not experiencing the events that followed through the prism of race.  He could just do his job.  The professor did not have that option.  He responded to the possibility of arrest in his own home for an ambiguous crime in a context of deep distrust between “black and blue” in America.

That distrust turned standard procedures and routine questions into the perception of race-based aggression.  The professor responded disrespectfully to his experience of being disrespected.  The cop responded to his experience of being disrespected with handcuffs.  Enter the President, who used his bully pulpit to name the context of distrust that escalated the incident – racial profiling – a phenomenon that is both improving and that no one really disputes.

So the problem here – and this is not breaking news – is that race still influences the experience of American citizenship.  And this moment represents an extraordinary opportunity to talk about it, to surface and address the lingering symptoms of our country’s “original sin,” a social, economic and political system that was not race-blind, to put it mildly.

It turns out that the same people that failed to produce a good law enforcement outcome are perfectly positioned to lead that conversation.  The brilliant scholar, visionary President and honorable officer could engage a public that’s leaning forward to build trust that would improve our public life.  The biggest risk at this point is that the opportunity will be lost in a series of photo-ops, press conferences and politicized meetings designed primarily to benefit the individuals involved.

There’s a collective opportunity here, which the President described as a “teachable moment.”  But we’re unlikely to get there with beers and handshakes at the White House.  We’re unlikely to learn anything from this moment unless someone makes a clear decision to lead us.

7 Responses to Beers and Handshakes at the White House

  1. Kathy Neuhaus says:

    This learning opportunity will certainly be missed and such missed opportunities will unfortunately be repeated, precisely because the leaders we’ve all identified, whether in our schools, churches, police stations, or highest government buildings, continue to chose to operate within the “prism of race”.

  2. I think one of the issues here is that whites and blacks are (in general terms) on very different planes in the ongong race debate.

    I think many whites have moved past the issue whereas for many blacks the issue is still raw.

    What I mean by this is that many (certainly not all) whites either never had a problem with racism, have come to accept other races and no longer have a problem with it, or may be overly conscious of race sensitivity and err on the side of overcompensation for perceived ills. Whites also tend not to link socio-economic issues with race. Therefore I think whites can tend to exacerbate the problem by appearing at times uncaring and may actually feed perceptions of inherent, if unspoken, racism.

    On the other hand, blacks (generally) still have an open wound here (for obvious reasons). Further, I believe low class blacks definitely tend to link socio-economic issues with matters of race.

    So in this respect, many whites (apart from the overly consciencious ones) tend to think we’ve come a really long way from the 1960’s since there is not overt segregation, blacks are not constantly being lynched, blacks are now in prominent national positions. On the contrarty, many blacks think we are not nearly far enough along b/c of socio-economic ills in the black community relative to the white community, there is a defacto segregation in many cities as upper income people tend to be white and tend to live apart from lower income people, who tend more frequently to be black, etc. etc.

    Anyway- this may be an oversimplification. But I think this is one part of the reason these flairups play out so awkwardly in the media. There has to be some common ground on this issue.

    But I think one thing that wasn’t helpful in the way this played out is that Obama gave credence to the perception that the cop behaved in an implicitly racist way, whereas the cop and those around him (including other blacks) say that he did not. Obama seems to have fed this perception of continued racism.

    I think people need to spend more time emphasizing how far we’ve come; how many companies have “diversity” initiatives, how many blacks now are in college and have better opportunities, etc. There needs to be more of an emphasis on the positive then there currently is, in my view.

    Anyway – good article. Good discussion.

  3. Anne Morriss says:

    I think that recognition of progress is important — and I also think a certain amount of “truth and reconciliation” are needed to build trust and move forward. These incidents remind us that for all the progress we’ve made, we still have work to do, which also must be discussable. We have to surface problems to solve them.

  4. Anne Morriss says:

    I hear you, and I’m not ready to give up. I think we can still make progress, even within this prism.

  5. JC says:

    The facts are:

    If both the professor and the president had bothered to stop for just a moment and realize they were climbing near the top of the ladder of inference, we would not be here today.

    If the cop had not flet the need to show the arrogant and incredibly disrespectful homeowner who was boss and instead allowed it to roll off his back, we would not be here today.

    The president was partly correct in that what has happened was “stupid” but where he was wrong was that it was only on the part of Cambridge police.

  6. Anne Morriss says:

    I love your reference to the ladder of inference frame, which I think is really helpful here. I think the rungs of that ladder are particularly worn around the topic of race, and part of the challenge for all of us is to climb back down and allow for the possibility that our “truths” may neither be true or obvious to other people.

  7. JC says:

    Amen! Unfortunately it seems that most are too busy pointing at everyone else’s ladder and completely disregarding their own!

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