President Obama has stated that the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates in his home provides a “teachable moment” about racial profiling, and the “relations between police officers and minority communities.”
The president’s remarks–that the police “acted stupidly”–sparked a backlash that the White House has tried to defuse by inviting arresting officer Sgt. James Crowley and Gates to sit down over a beer at the White House. The meeting, slated to take place in the next few days, will no doubt result in consensus that we should all get along, and how hard it is to do so given conflicting histories and perspectives.
This will defuse the furor, but it won’t provide much of a lesson for the teachable moment. Racial profiling isn’t a matter that is unique to Gates and Crowley. The reality is, as the president suggested, despite the great progress this nation has made on racial discrimination–as attested by the president’s own election–we are still a long way from a post-racial society.
African Americans across the country understood Gates’ anger at being challenged in his home. Racial profiling remains a widespread reality. DWB–driving while black–is still more likely to get you stopped in areas across the country. Young African Americans are more likely to be searched if stopped, more likely to be charged, more likely to be arrested if charged, more likely to do time than be fined if convicted. In schools across the country, African-American boys and girls are more likely to be disciplined and more likely to be suspended for the same behaviors as their white classmates.
This isn’t a secret. We have passed laws and set up agencies to remedy these practices. Police and fire departments in many urban areas have made significant efforts to overcome them. Progress has been made as police forces have become more integrated, but we still have a long way to go.
Moreover, as the president stated in his speech earlier this month to the NAACP, “The most difficult barriers include structural inequalities that our nation’s legacy of discrimination has left behind; inequalities still plaguing too many communities and too often the object of national neglect.”
African Americans are more likely to go to poor and crowded schools; more likely to be unemployed, more likely to lack health insurance, more likely to be targeted by predatory lenders. These structural inequalities, as the president noted, require public action and initiative to change.
So while it would be a good thing for Gates and Crowley to apologize one to another and shake hands, that won’t fulfill the “teachable moment.” It wouldn’t have been sufficient if the bus driver in Montgomery had apologized to Rosa Parks, and Ms. Parks had apologized for refusing to obey his order to go to the back of the bus. That would not have addressed the basic question of access to public accommodations. It’s the policy that must be addressed, not just the personal interaction.
Attorney General Eric Holder has stated that this is a “nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing race. It is particularly hard for an African-American president who wants sensibly to establish that he is the president of all Americans.
But the Gates arrest–and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Ricci case, overturning New Haven’s decision to throw out a test that had a discriminatory effect, that may toll the death knell to affirmative action–do provide teachable moments. It is time to teach. We need a White House Conference on Structural Inequality and Racial Profiling.
We’ve acknowledged that racial discrimination is bad and passed laws and programs to remedy it. But as Dr. King taught us, that is not enough. We have to fund the programs and enforce the laws. So let’s detail the reality of the practices and structural inequalities that the president mentioned, evaluate the programs and laws that exist to remedy them, fund and enforce the law, and set up goals and timetables to measure our progress.