The infamous arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates at his home in Cambridge momentarily brought the issue of race to the forefront in America… again. For more than a week, the television and radio airwaves were filled with debate and acrimony over whether racial profiling and/or preconceived perceptions of criminality about Black men played a role in Professor Gates’ arrest. When President Barack Obama weighed in at a White House press conference on health care reform by proclaiming that the Cambridge police acted “stupidly,” the incident became the dominant story for several news cycles. The uproar that the President’s remarks provoked demonstrated the limits of the power of a Black man in the White House in a nation that is still in denial about racism. President Obama reluctantly dialed back his rhetoric and accepted Sergeant James Crowley’s suggestion that the parties meet at the White House for a beer.
With hundreds of media cameras rolling, the whole nation watched as the President, Vice-President, Gates and Crowley clicked glasses in what appeared to be an amiable toast. The principals agreed to meet again in the future, and with that, ostensibly, the matter was finished. The nation and the news media are back to business as usual -- that is until the next sensational episode on race explodes, as most assuredly it will.
And therein lies the problem, America will revert back to denial mode. Perhaps this is why Attorney General Eric Holder made the “controversial” remark that America is a “nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing race/racism. Of course, he was immediately lambasted by the rightwing attack machine while the rest of the commercialized/homogenized media chimed in uncritically. But truer words were never spoken. Many in White America are petrified by the thought of a real conversation about race. However, the “more perfect union” promised in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution will never fully be fulfilled until this nation confronts and deals with the issue of race in all of its dimensions.
The President termed the Gates’ arrest a “teachable moment” but rather than use it as a real opportunity to initiate a process to educate on the issues of race, he settled for a “beer summit.” Perhaps this is understandable given the huge number of complex issues his administration is working to address. There is no reason why he could not have instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to take some immediate steps to advance discussion and action on issues of race illuminated by Professor Gates’ arrest. First, the Attorney General should have convened a national summit on police community relations to explore the wide range of grievances that exist between communities of color and police across the country. In some respects the uproar over Professor Gates’ arrest represents what Ellis Cose called the “rage of the privileged class,” an unjust and embarrassing inconvenience. Professor Gates will soon return to a life of relative privilege as a member of the Black elite.
As Bob Herbert correctly notes in a recent New York Times article, the real issue is the hundreds of thousands of mostly poor and working class Blacks who are routinely stopped, frisked or otherwise harassed by police on a daily basis. A national summit could have explored these issues and offered recommendations to remedy a potentially combustible situation. Second, the Obama administration could re-introduce a bill banning racial profiling, legislation long championed by the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights/human leaders. These are some immediate steps that could and should have been initiated as an outgrowth of the arrest of Professor Gates. But these actions would still fall short of the real conversation on race we need to engage.
Ultimately, a serious and substantive conversation on race as it relates to the experiences of Africans in America must begin with a thorough analysis of the original wound, enslavement and the institution of chattel slavery. As if there is no relationship between this “original sin” and the present, Black people are admonished to forget and move on as a precondition for acceptance. Pundits and politicians, especially conservatives, want to lecture Blacks for our failure to accept “personal responsibility” for the problems plaguing those at the bottom in Black America, without acknowledging the inter-generational impact of centuries of enslavement and de jure and de facto apartheid.
This is why I strongly favor the passage of HR-40, the “Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act,” which Congressman John Conyers, Jr. has introduced in Congress every year since 1989. In addition to acknowledging “the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865,” the bill would create a commission to study the impact of slavery and segregation on African Americans up to the present and recommend remedies to Congress to repair/heal damages where found.
I want to start the conversation at the most painful and controversial point, an exhaustive examination of what it was like to be reduced to property, a non-human in the United States. What were the consequences of being forbidden to practice one’s religion, speak one’s language or even play musical instruments integral to one’s ethnic/national culture? What was the impact of being separated by ethnic group and the fracturing of families for commercial pursuit? What was the benefit to the nation and its citizens of centuries of free labor extracted from the subjects of the “peculiar institution?” What were the consequences of being “emancipated” without being granted land/property, resources or a stake in America’s capitalist economy? What was the effect of being compelled to labor on plantations as sharecroppers and being leased out as convict labor from prisons? What was the effect of decades of racial violence directed at the formerly enslaved Africans, including thousands of lynchings? What were the loss opportunity costs to Blacks for being excluded from various occupations and/or being confined to the dirtiest, lowest paying jobs in various industries and occupations for generations?
These are the kinds of questions/issues that a Reparations Study Commission should address as part of a national conversation and education on race in America as it relates to the sons and daughters of Africa. And, the conversation must begin with the aggrieved, the victims, voicing their grievances and recounting the history of injustice heaped on them as they see it. Unfortunately, proponents of a national dialogue on race often act as if there is an experiential or moral equivalency between people of African descent (Blacks) and Euro-ethnics (Whites) in the conversation. This is a faulty premise. Whites were not enslaved or the subject of apartheid. Just as men cannot command or demand a seat at the table as victims in a dialogue about gender equality; women have to speak and men have to listen and respond. Similarly, the dialogue on race must necessarily begin with the evidence of Black oppression/victimization and Whites must listen and then respond.
The question is what do conservatives or White opponents of the Reparations Study Commission have to fear from a real conversation on race/racism. Perhaps it is that once the general public knows what really happened to people of African descent in history, the use of race/racism as a tool to divide and exploit would be neutralized. Equally important, with all the facts on the table, it is entirely possible that an educated public will view the Black experience in America with a more understanding and empathetic mind and embrace proposals to repair the damage and heal the wounds from this enormous blot on the American character. In so doing, all of us will move closer to “a more perfect union!”
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com . He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org