Beers and Handshakes at the White House

July 26, 2009

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.