Anna Deavere Smith on the Beer Summit

August 1, 2009

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith is best known for playing diverse characters in powerful, thoroughly researched, one-woman shows about events that shake us at the foundation such as the L.A. riots.  Smith is among the great observers of our time.  She holds a mirror up at an angle that always illuminates and sometimes burns.

I saw her perform last fall in Let Me Down Easy, a show that explores the presence and absence of grace.  The characters she channeled ranged from Rwandan genocide survivors to a horse trainer in Kentucky.  Some part of me was scared to be less than 20 feet away from her.  I wasn’t sure I could handle the truths she was about to reveal.  She let me down easy.  When I saw her the next day at a gym around Cambridge, it took all of my self-control not to interrupt her stretching and thank her for being gentle.

Smith weighed in on the Beer Summit this week in a blog entry on The Huffington Post.  She spends a lot of the post working through her own conflicted relationship with the police, and then lands with a strong challenge to the prescriptions being offered for making good use of this “teachable moment.”  She suggests that most of what we’re hearing is too soft, too 1998, a year that no one has examined like Smith.  We now need to pivot, she argues, from teaching and learning to action:

What concerns me about the “heated debate” is that as radio hosts and guests talk, I hear the same kind of language that I heard — and studied — in the ’90s. Talk of “safe places to have conversations,” for example. That’s not what we need right now. This is not about conversations and “learning about one another.” We don’t need salons. We need initiatives and resources to spark the work of building a stronger society, one with public spaces that allow for shared excellence.


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.