What the press labeled the beer summit came and went with barely a burp. Professor Gates suggests that he and Officer Crowley are now virtually drinking buddies, ready to go to a ballgame together.
“I offered to get his kids into Harvard if he doesn’t arrest me again,” said Gates to laughter.
But the teachable moment was never about Gates and Crowley alone. It was about something society has to be very serious about: systemic racial profiling and the need to overcome it.
When Obama initially was asked about the Gates arrest at his press conference, he committed truth. He said he didn’t know the details of the incident, that everyone knew that racial profiling was a widespread problem, and that the police had acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates in his own home. All of that is clearly true, no matter how badly Gates was acting.
But the president’s remarks were like a stick hitting a wasp’s nest, with the president getting stung by the response. Police spokesmen denounced him, reminding us of the risks that police take every day. The rabid right accused the president of hating White people. The president, hoping to focus on health care reform, moved to “walk back” his remarks and defuse the situation with the beer summit.
But ensuring that a Harvard professor like Gates and a well-trained police officer like Crowley get along isn’t the point of what the president called a “teachable moment.”
It isn’t that easy. It’s institutional–banks that don’t lend, lenders that charge more, police that act differently.
For example, Lisa Madigan, the Illinois Attorney General, has just filed a suit against Wells Fargo for “discriminatory and illegal mortgage lending practices” that “transformed our city’s predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods into ground zero for subprime lending.”
The lawsuit accuses Wells Fargo of poor oversight that enabled its employees to steer Blacks and Latinos into high cost loans. In 2007, about 49 percent of Well Fargo’s Black borrowers and 25 percent of Latinos were sold a high cost loan in the Chicago area, in contrast to 15 percent of White borrowers.
“[The foreclosure crisis] isn’t the natural result of a slumping economy, and it isn’t the result of homeowners taking on more than they can handle,” Madigan has stated. “This crisis is the direct result of unfair, deceptive and discriminatory lending practices by the lending industry.”
This kind of profiling has had devastating effects in the African-American and Latino community. But African-Americans and Latinos haven’t been the only victims. As people lost their homes, the value of homes in their neighborhoods plummeted. As home values declined, tax revenues declined. Schools lost teachers; road and sewer projects were put off. The entire community suffered.
As America moves slowly toward being a nation made up of minorities, racial profiling and structural discrimination will increasingly hurt everyone. We know that Blacks are stopped more, arrested more, tried more, charged more and jailed more than Whites with similar records. But as a result of imprisoning young African-American and Latino men and women, states across the country are spending billions warehousing nonviolent offenders while laying off teachers, firefighters and police. That makes no sense.
The president had it right the first time. The Gates-Crowley incident was a teachable moment.
But a staged photo op of four guys being served beer by a waiter in the White House garden won’t get that done. We need a national inquest about where we are, what changes must be made to move us forward.
Most Americans seem eager to lower their voices and to have a serious conversation about race, pleased with the progress that Obama’s election represents. In this increasingly diverse nation, we have little choice.