Saturday, July 25, 2009

Just Imagine

“Imagine,” says Chris Matthews at MSNBC, "that the roles and races in the Cambridge arrest were reversed (black cop, white prof). Would the public discussion be the same?”

I don’t think it’s a very illuminating question (not that I presume Mr. Matthews’ first intention is to illuminate). It comes with a number of underlying assumptions, perpetuating the view that race issues include only blacks and whites and are about “us” and “them.” At the risk of perpetuating some of those same assumptions, I offer my own series of questions that I hope will be more illuminating:

Just imagine that Lucia Whalen, the woman who made the 911 call (and whose ethnicity I don’t know), observed a short, WHITE, 58-year-old-man with a cane, trying to enter the house.

1. Would Ms. Whalen have “seen” something else—something so different that she wouldn’t feel the need to call 911?

2. How likely would it be that she would even know the guy, and might even go over to assist? (Whether Ms. Whalen DID know Dr. Gates and still made the call is a whole ‘nother question.)

Nothing of that scenario involves Sgt. Crowley, who was simply responding to a call.

3. But what if the short, white, 58-year-old man--indignant over this intrusion into his home—is ranting and raving (over some perhaps imagined offense) and calling Sgt. Crowley and his mama names, acting “a little bit stranger than it should have been”? Would Sgt. Crowley perhaps see an “angry uncle” who needed to be calmed down (as presumably police training would dictate) rather than a man so “uncooperative” in his own home that he needed to be arrested? What are the chances that this would have resulted in an arrest?

And alternately:

Imagine that rather than Sgt. Crowley, his black partner, Sgt. Leon Lashley, had confronted Prof. Gates.

1. How likely is it that the professor, still indignant and angry over the intrusion, would continue the ranting and raving?

2. If the professor did continue his rant, would Sgt. Lashley perhaps see an “angry uncle” who needed to be calmed down? How likely is it that it would have resulted in an arrest?

What do you think?

A Teachable Moment

I don’t know if anyone is calling Sgt. James Crowley a racist after his arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Mass. I am not. I don’t think the officer should lose his job. I don’t believe either one of these men should be bearing all the weight for the wrongness of the situation. But there is wrongness, and while each of them bears some responsibility for the wrongness, it goes beyond them—to us.

Last year candidate Obama bravely (and perhaps expediently) challenged Americans to a national dialogue on race. This time he is calling for a teachable moment and inviting both men for a friendly sit-down and the White House. But every day that the first African American President is in office is a reminder of his race challenge. I know that this will aggravate many people I know: I truly believe that much (not ALL) of the criticism of the President (stuff like: he’s not an American, he’s a Muslim, he’s a socialist, he’s a slimy liar, he’s the worst President ever) is born of our failure to address feelings about having an African American President.

But the challenge is not for a national argument or a national battle. A dialogue doesn’t have to have winners and losers. Raising race as an issue doesn’t have to declare bad people and good people. It is in that spirit that I posted my own story a few days ago. I’m thrilled that many of my friends understood the spirit, and responded accordingly.

Now, in the same spirit, I am prepared to address the actual situation in Cambridge. I do so again desiring no pity, no guilt, no winners or losers—just mutual understanding and perhaps further racial progress. In the post to come, just imagine…

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Acting Stupidly

For those who don’t believe the racial angle to the Henry Louis Gates arrest, I offer this personal story; not as proof, but as perspective:

Chrissy won’t forget that it was June 16, 2008. It was the day our dear Chelsea gave us a great scare. At about 9 pm we heard Chrissy screaming, “She’s not breathing!” Laura and I ran upstairs to find a limp baby in her mother’s arms. Laura took the baby and attempted CPR while Chrissy called 911. The household was going crazy. I’m sure the 911 operator could hear Thomas yelling in the background even after he went outside. Paramedics arrived and walked (leisurely, nonchalantly) up our walkway. They told us that Chelsea would be okay and asked if we wanted them to take her to the hospital. We did. They took Chelsea and Chrissy in the ambulance. The rest of us [Laura; our son, Thomas; and our grandsons Damon (4) and Michael (17)] piled into the car en route to meeting them at the hospital. After a few minutes on the road, Chrissy called from the ambulance to ask us to go back home to get Chelsea’s diaper bag.

We arrived home to see a police car out front and an officer at our door. I got out of the driver’s seat to meet the officer. When I got halfway up my walkway, the officer met me. He stuck out a hand, while grabbing his gun with the other hand, as if to say, “No further!” He asked “And who are YOU!” Yes, just like that.

By then, my white wife and Michael, my white teenaged grandson, had also gotten out. They passed us unobstructed, walked up to the door, and entered the house. I responded to the officer, “This is my house. I own this house.”

He looked at me skeptically, then asked “So what was all the commotion?”

“Well, Officer, my granddaughter stopped breathing and there were a lot of upset people.”

“What happened to make her stop breathing? What was going on before she stopped breathing?” He was trying to figure out what I did to make her stop breathing.

“I don’t know; I just heard her mother screaming. But you know, Officer, we really need to get to the hospital.”

He extended his hand again, making sure that I didn’t go into my own house. He asked, “Who were you fighting with in the yard?”

“Excuse me?”

“Neighbors reported that there was fighting in the yard.”

“There was no fighting in the yard. My son was yelling because he was afraid he was losing his daughter. I came outside to calm him down.”

“Have you been drinking?”

“I had a glass of wine.”

By then Laura and Michael were out of the house. Laura spoke up, “We really need to get to the hospital.”

“Is there someone else who can drive?”

Laura said, “I can drive,” wisely not offering that she, too, had had a glass of wine.

Finally, the officer let me leave my own house to check on my granddaughter at the hospital, as long as I did so from my own passenger’s seat. Meanwhile my wife white, my white young adult son, and my white 17-old- and 4-year-old grandsons, all distraught over the plight of our Chelsea, have witnessed the added humiliation of my confrontation at my own house.

To re-clarify: I don’t write this to solicit pity, to inflict guilt, or even to make a political statement. I write simply to describe my reality to people whose reality is different.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Songs of Freedom

I’m feeling especially patriotic this Independence Day. I’m actually flying an American flag from my house. A few months ago I wrote about my 40 years of patriotic cynicism’s triumph over patriotic devotion. Today the dominance in my patriotism has shifted from the critical to the more affectionate twin.

So I have assembled my favorite patriotic songs from my CD collection. For the most part I haven’t ranked the songs in my list. But I do have a #1 and a #2. The top song takes me way back almost to that 40 years ago. That’s when The Fifth Dimension recorded the medley The Declaration/A Change is Gonna Come/People Gotta Be Free. Today I can recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence because of that song.

On the list, I tried to weed out those songs that just talk about treating people right (I have a lot of those songs) in favor of those that actually focus on this nation, this country, this land. That means I cut a bunch of peace and love songs in favor of freedom songs. Still I let a little of the peace and love shine through.

My list of roughly 100 songs includes songs called “America” by Neil Diamond, Pops Staples, The Vigilantes of Love, and Cornel West. In the end, there are songs by U2, , Jill Scott, Bruce Cockburn, the Neville Brothers, John Mayer, Jimi Hendrix, Patty Griffin., Common, Derek Webb, Tommy Sims. Eva Cassidy, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Usher, Norah Jones, Stevie Wonder, Marc Brouusard, Lenny Kravitz, Jennifer Hudson, Springsteen, John Legend, and Mellencamp. And the list includes brand new American anthems from the likes of (It’s a New Day), Dave Stewart (American Prayer), and David Foster (America’s Song).

My #2 favorite song on the list surprises even me: Despite her unquestioned talent and her extensive catalog, there are only one or two Celine Dion songs that I actually like (“Because You Loved Me” comes to mind). Additionally, I’ve never been that fond of “God Bless America”; it’s always sounded a little exclusive to my ears. But when French Canadian Celine Dion sang “God bless America, land that I love!” in the aftermath of 9/11, it conveyed a different message than I had ever heard before. I wonder what Ms. Dion was thinking as she sang the song. Was she including herself as part of (North) America, was she singing as an adopted citizen of the USA, or was she simply singing as a gift to her friends across the border at the time of their tragedy? I don’t know; but in this performance her prayer is clear and heartfelt. So on this Independence Day, I echo her prayer: God bless America (and all the nations)!

What’s on your list?