Monday, August 3, 2009


When Henry met Crowley, as I’m now prone to refer to the “incident” near Harvard University on July 16, the professor and the cop opened the floodgates. Those gates of cultural racism on the down low swung open to reveal a racial schism in this country so much deeper than even that of the 1960s civil rights era. Whoever says racism is obsolescent in the U.S. is either lying or self-delusional. Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley forced a spotlight on one of the nation’s leading teachers of the black experience and a dedicated police officer who is known for teaching his own courses in racial sensitivity. Still the arrest of Gates in his own home by Crowley raised the temperature on racial division in this country to a boiling point.

Lost in the media firestorm has been any mention of Gates’s recently released book, In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past (Crown Publishers, April 2009). Envision the intersection of Hollywood celebrity, traditional historical research technique and cutting edge DNA technology, and Gates’ concept starts to take shape. Herein Gates explores the genealogy of big names like Tina Turner, Don Cheadle, Maya Angelou and Morgan Freeman, among others. It’s fascinating stuff, this family tree snooping. But more than the fascination is its raison d’etre. One of Gates’ past subjects, Oprah Winfrey, has opined the true significance of Gates’ dogged pursuit of the truth about the collective black lineage. She said, “This is who you are, this is where you've come from. You've come from strength and power and endurance and pain and suffering and triumph. You've come from all of that. And so imagine now how much more you can be."

Gates now has the distinction of being an American who compels us to learn about the past and to consider the present and future of black America. And Crowley, in his own articulate fashion, steps forward now to extend his hand for reconciliation and public awareness. It is one of those moments in America when the racial divide in the country serves as the backdrop for positive change. But make no mistake; this is not a warm fuzzy moment in America. Just last week a Boston cop was suspended from the force for sending out an email that refers to Gates as a “jungle monkey.” This follows an op-ed piece in USA Today in which Chuck Canterbury, the president of the National Fraternal Order of Police flatly states, “Racial profiling is not a legitimate law enforcement tool, and there is no evidence that prejudice is a systemic problem in U.S. law enforcement.” His words were a weak shot at damage control, but of course, Canterbury and all of us know that racial profiling is indeed employed nationwide, routinely. The Gates/Crowley incident continues to be the catalyst for all manner of exclusionary expression and outright falsehoods about race in America.

Our holy St. Oprah of Chicago would call this a “teaching moment.” This is a moment when we can take the racial discussion out of the closet it has been hiding in for the past quarter century or so. You may not like everything you hear, but you’ll probably feel compelled to speak up and throw your words in the ring. That’s a good thing. Nothing moves forward that is censored, denied or otherwise thwarted. This is our chance to bring some true definition to the race issues in America. We tried in the 1960s, and the result was the Voting Rights Act. Not bad for a mid-20th century effort. This time we can go bigger and bolder. I don’t know about you, but I’m on the edge of my seat to see what happens next.

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