We've been ill-prepared over the last few weeks to deal with the kind of candor the president showed last night, discussing the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Confronted by a gushing onslaught of white anxiety, Judge Sonia Sotomayor chose to back down from her statements about race and gender affecting one's perspective, allowing Republicans to perpetuate the myth that one's background and experience have nothing to do with how they see the world. But last night, the question of perspective was thrown back into focus when the president criticized the behavior of the Cambridge police. While acknowledging that "progress has been made," he said the police acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates after it was clear he was in his own residence, and joked about being shot if he himself tried to break into the White House.
Why was the president so candid? I think it has everything to do with his experience. After the incident, Gates said, "If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody--anybody black, but also anybody less fortunate than me of any color." What the president was saying last night, effectively, was that he could imagine what happened to Gates happening to him. And, if he weren't the president, it certainly could. I'm not sure you can really understand it unless it's happened to you, but there's a severe trust deficit. Some white folks seemed unwilling to even consider that race was a factor in the Gates incident until a black moderate, John McWhorter, explained what it's like to be looked at as a potential menace by a man with a gun and society's implicit permission to use it, simply because of your race.
The president's honesty on race, quite frankly, makes people uncomfortable. Americans deeply yearn to be beyond race, and we are at times hostile to those who choose to remind us that we aren't. The president refused to do that last night, to the disappointment of those who believed in some kind of implicit promise of post-raciality inherent in his rise, and to the glee of Republicans who are busy blowing the dust off of Pat Buchanan's Nixon-era playbook. The argument during the election was that liberals were the ones who were looking for racial absolution in Obama's candidacy. But Republicans have been the pious keepers of that flame, and today they'll pour kerosene on the fire hoping it will engulf enough of the country and immolate the administration's chances to push through health care reform. For his part, Obama warned long ago that his candidacy was not an opportunity to "purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap." For obvious reasons, some people have refused to listen--the possibility of holding Obama accountable for a promise he never made and couldn't possibly keep is too tempting.
My first thought upon hearing what Obama said was that he may have allowed his opponents a crucial opening to destroy health-care reform. He certainly should have chosen his words more carefully, and if I'm being completely honest, I'd say this was the wrong moment to be real with the American people on race. There's an unfortunate and longstanding myth that racism is something that victimizes people of color. The truth is that institutionalized racism has always been a disaster for this entire country, economically, socially, and politically. If health-care reform is derailed because the GOP effectively exploits racial fault lines, and allows the argument over health care to become one over how the president hates the police and doesn't want them to protect you from all the scary black men out there, it will prove that race still has the power to make Americans abandon their most immediate interests in the name of petty tribalism.
The GOP is counting on it.
-- A. Serwer