» The Discussion That Never Begins: Race in America

On the op-ed page of last week’s New York Times, Deborah Warner talked about racial identity in America, and how that identity affects whom we are and what we do.

She made some interesting observations – our racial identity has impacted the recent arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the hands of a white Cambridge police officer, and it has also driven some of the criticism of Sonia Sotomayor during her judicial confirmation hearings. Sotomayor’s critics refuse to concede that who we are, ethnically speaking, directly determines (at least in part) what we see, how we think, how we reason and how we react.

For now, many see and feel African Americans, Caucasians, Latinos, Asians and (any race not our own), as ’other.’

When I think of race, and how our feelings and attitudes about race are developed, two of those ethnically ‘other’ memories come into sharp focus. The first is that of myself as a young boy, visiting the South on our way to Florida, following the water cooler line for ’colored.’ The second is my long-ago visit to an integrated school in Evanston, Illinois. I was playing in the all city orchestra, and was struck by the sight of kids of all colors talking and playing together. I was drawn to the interplay among races, and was somewhat startled that they all interacted so well.

Since some part of who we are is conditioned by our race, couldn’t this conditioning have affected the Cambridge police officer as well? It seems that he assumed that the two ‘suspects’ at Gates’ home were African Americans. This, despite the fact that the woman who called 911 to report the incident described one of the men in question as ‘possibly Hispanic’ and was unable to see the other. The 911 recording backs up the caller’s statement — there was no mention of African Americans on the tape.

And perhaps our difficulty in dealing constructively and comfortingly with race issues was demonstrated on MSNBC yesterday. The network reported that during a weekend event in New England, Dr. Gates was able to poke fun at the interaction with the police officer who arrested him. The network broadcast a replay of Dr. Gates making jokes about helping the officer’s kids get into Harvard, “As long as he doesn’t arrest me again!”

Almost as an afterthought, the newscaster added that, following the incident in July, Dr. Gates has received death threats. The mainline network message here? “Let’s focus on the humor and downplay the discomfort of facing and discussing the violent responses that this incident has evoked.”

Hard lines, anyone?