Friday, August 14, 2009

That Brew-ha-ha

During all that fuss last month about the confrontation between Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley, many commentators took the opportunity to proclaim, aha, President Obama isn't so post-racial after all.

At the time, I tended to agree with them but, with the passage of time and a little perspective, it seems to me that the president may have been nearly the only person in the whole country who did not see the situation in racial terms. Henry Louis Gates is a friend of his, and he reacted the same way most of us tend to react when a friend gets into a conflict. We usually don't worry about the right or the wrong of the situation. We support our friend. And we call the person who upset our friend an idiot. Or, if we are trying to sound more reasonable, we might say that he acted stupidly.

What made the president's reaction remarkable is that, for such a political animal, it seemed not to occur to him that there would be a political dimension to his reaction. A few days later, he seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would have seen the situation any differently than himself. But almost everyone did, for the simple reason that most of us don't know Prof. Gates (or, for that matter, Sgt. Crowley) personally. It wasn't simply a case of being loyal to a friend for us in the masses. So it is strange that the president did not realize that much of the country would see the incident through a white-versus-black prism, just as Prof. Gates clearly did.

But people across the country were seeing the incident through several different filters. Quite a few people specifically familiar with Cambridge and Harvard saw it through a local-police-versus-the-black-community prism. Others, who didn't want to go to the white-versus-black place, took an individual-citizen-in-his-own-home-versus-government-intrusion view. But what was interesting was how many people perceived the whole thing through a pointy-headed-elitist-academic-versus-a-working-class-man-just-doing-his-job filter. For them, the black-as-victim meme didn't quite work when it involved a world-famous academic at a prestigious university who calls the country's president a personal friend. And who wasn't picked up randomly on the street but was dealing with a cop responding to a report of a possible break-in.

The only generalization you can make about how the country reacted is that each news consumer slid the story into a template formed by their own experiences or the narratives of American society implanted on their consciousness. It wasn't so much the facts of the incident that got people's emotions going. It was the memories, personal or shared, that those facts evoked. Professional pundits and certain political operatives had a particular interest in fitting the story to a popular pre-existing narrative, which sometimes had strange results. The most surreal moment for me was watching CNN's very white Larry King more or less lecturing black libertarian guest pundit Larry Elder on not being sensitive enough to African-American history.

Let's hope that someday we finally get to the point where we can look at a situation like this and see it, like Barack Obama, as simply an incident involving two men. And let's hope that, in the meantime, Barack Obama can look at a situation like this and see it as a president.

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