In those days they shall say no more, the fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children's teeth are set on edge.
-- Jeremiah 31:29 (KJV)
On July 16 a great public intellectual and an anti-racist policeman found themselves trapped in roles they had studiously avoided. I don’t imagine that this encounter will figure prominently in either man’s scrapbook.
I don’t know all the facts, so I’m going to zip my lip about details, as my president should have done. Since there is no recording of the incident, I will never know what was the immediate spark that blew this thing up, and caused the arrest of a distinguished black man, in or near his own home, on a charge that was self-referential – since any “disorderly conduct” arose from the encounter itself.
Anyone who has sat on a jury knows that the facts of a real encounter are squishier than “facts” in a crime drama. On TV, we see and hear what happened, and there is only one version to consider. But in real life even neutral witnesses may without perjury depict incompatible events at the same time and place.
Therefore I’m not going to say who’s at fault. It’s easy to see why either of them might have lost control, for the situation accused each of precisely what their lives had stood against. Henry Louis Gates is not a ghetto petty criminal but a genial voyager through abandoned history, singer of a previously lost voice in America’s great fugue. James Crowley is not a racial profiler but an educator who stands against such failures of imagination. Both have laid foundation stones of America’s better future. But as it is difficult for white folks to understand the pain of a black man who is always suspected of being a thief, it is also difficult for black folks to understand the pain of a white man who is always suspected of hateful designs. The harder a person works to disprove such expectations, the harder those expectations are to bear.
Both men had good reason to be where they were, doing what they were doing. Then one or both of them went “too far,” carried away by ancient anger and intimate pain. Henry Louis Gates wasn’t planning to play the part of Angry Black Man. James Crowley wasn’t planning to play the part of Rogue Racist Cop. But the situation was precarious, and it didn’t take much to push them over the edge of civility into nasty currents of racial conflict.
Then the President tried to calm things down, and fell in the muck himself. To say the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” was to throw gasoline on the fire, adding anthems of class warfare to those of racial conflict. Now it was two Harvard guys impeaching the intelligence of blue-collar public servants. That the man of No Drama could slip so farcically shows how hard it is, even for the world’s most powerful person, to speak of such matters without lapsing into slogans and ideologies of the past.
This was a very unpleasant incident. Unpleasant for the participants, who have both been offended at a deep level of personal identity. Unpleasant for observers, who are sick of this kind of thing happening. Or sick of this kind of thing appearing to have happened. Or sick of this kind of thing being assumed to have happened. For what is this kind of thing? Can we keep our eyes, our ears, in the present moment?
There are some who, as America heals herself, stand to lose their power. I cannot call them a party, because they work separately and are scattered across the usual fractures – rich and poor, Right and Left, colorless and of color. When wounds begin to close, such people are unnerved, and throw ideology in our eyes. These are the people who want to keep our teeth on edge, because our parents ate sour grapes.
Each of us must set the stage for virtue. We must listen and we must speak (for speaking is the test of our listening). We must speak the truth that is in front of us. We must accept correction but no shame for speaking. Racial reconciliation began as a big idea, but it will end, if it ends, as I and Thou, over and over again.