Related: Civil & Human Rights, Politics, Social Issues

Flashpoints

 
 

We are the world.  Until we’re not.  Our collective Kumbaya moment on January 20 is a gauzy memory.   There’s nothing “post-racial” about contemporary America except in our highest aspirations for the nation we wish we could be.   Flashpoints keep blinding our vision, deflecting our progress, turning heads in the wrong direction.

Flashpoints.

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., led away in handcuffs from his own home.  Police officers lining up in solidarity to support the arresting officer.  President Barack Obama temporizing his description of the arrest as stupid.  Talk radio lines are burning with the vitriolic rhetoric that passes for public discussion of race in America.

Flashpoints.

Senators repeatedly grilling Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor for using the phrase “wise Latina woman” in a speech eight years ago.   White Connecticut firefighters, invited by those same Senators, arrayed at the Judiciary Committee hearing table to testify against her because she was part of a Court of Appeals panel that upheld precedent in an affirmative action case.

Flashpoints.

The Valley Club in Philadelphia cancels a contract for the Creative Steps day camp to use the club pool for summer camp.   Children in the group who participated on the first day, before the contract cancellation, report that they heard members of the club say, “Why are all these  Black kids here?”

Flashpoints.

Michael Jackson’s sudden death leads to massive media coverage of his musical career and troubled life, with inevitable commentary and controversy about race.

Flashpoints.

Who among us does not break out in a cold sweat when we see police lights flashing in our rear view mirror?    We fumble to find that license-registration-insurance card combo and pray that we will get to drive ourselves home rather than have a ride in the cruiser to a cold jail cell.   Even me?  Sure!   So, if even someone like me gets woozy at the thought of a police stop, imagine how it must feel to those whose long communal history is one of abuse and oppression at the hands of authority.   Racial profiling is a fact, not a theory.   Black men are far more likely to be stopped, interrogated and arrested than any other citizens.   Does that mean that it’s ok to disrespect the police?   Absolutely not.   Police have tough, dangerous jobs, and showing them respect is not a sign of weakness or cowardly obeisance.  But when is cooperation co-option?  Negotiating the police-citizen relationship is a moving target, infinitely more complex when race is a factor.

Flashpoints.

Out of the public eye, most people traverse the racial landscape subconsciously until the tips of icebergs break the surface of what seems like progress.   Most Americans live in racially segregated neighborhoods, and most children attend segregated schools — no longer segregated by law, but segregated by human choices for better or worse.   Those of us who live and work in more integrated environments think we have achieved the color-blind society of our hopes, until we learn the hard way that race is a great river whose churning current courses beneath daily life, threatening to drag each of us under the rocks.   And we know that racism cuts in many directions.   A few weeks ago I stopped by a local supermarket late at night on my way home.   As I waited in the self-checkout line (always a mistake, what was I thinking?), I observed that the customer ahead of me had several small children running about, and they were playing with the scanner while she bagged her groceries.   I watched this for several minutes, and then — though I should have known better — I said, probably in a snappish tone, “Hey, kids, that’s not a toy!”  Wrong, wrong, wrong.   Alarm bells were going off in my head.   The customer stopped her bagging as the kids ran to her, pointing back at me.   With a glare that could have melted ice, she muttered a very nasty racial epithet at me, loud enough for those around to hear, and kept up a stream of ugly taunts as she continued bagging very, very slowly.   Had we been at school or in a more professional environment, this was the kind of incident where I’d want to sit down and talk about what happened.   But this was personal life, and we were strangers, and so I took a keen interest in the latest issue of the National Enquirer and waited out the storm.   She finally left, and I bagged my groceries and went home thinking that race relations in my neighborhood remain a seriously treacherous terrain.

Flashpoints.

If you are under any illusions about “post-racial” America, read some of the nearly 2,000 comments posted on the Washington Post’s story today about Obama’s retraction of his “stupid” comments.  Fasten your seat belt, it gets ugly pretty fast out there.

Read:  New York Times Commentators, “Gates Case and Racial Profiling”

Read:  Stanley Fish on Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu