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The Gates Case Revisited

How "White Magic" Makes the Ism of Race Disappear

by Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS

Cambridge police sergeant James M. Crowley’s arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for “disorderly conduct” in his own home triggered an intense, momentary national conversation on “race.”  Not on racism.  “White magic” has made racism largely disappear from American society.  But out of sight out of mind is not foolproof.  A white police officer’s blatant abuse of power and a preeminent black scholar’s alleging “racist cop” and, handcuffed on his front porch, yelling, “This is how black men are treated in America!,” threatened to make the ism in “race” reappear.  Thus a heavy dose of “white magic” has been administered to camouflage the ism and protect the illusion of a “post-racial” America.  An understanding of the “white magic” employed can contribute to the continuing struggle for “a more perfect union.”

Mainstream media, a primary guardian of America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to economic and political power, played a major role in redefining the issue as a problem of interpersonal relationships not institutional racism, and thus the need for yet another “national debate about race.”  A New York Times story, for example, was subtitled, “An Encounter That Provoked A Talk on Race,” and its second paragraph contained the slant: “. . . a confrontation began between [italics added] a star black  Harvard professor and a veteran white police officer that has turned into a heated national dialogue about race.” (July 27, 2009)

A Boston Globe story was headlined, “Gates case strikes nerve, stirs racial debate.”  The piece, creating a “dialogue about race,” reported that the “volatile affair” produced “a range of recent interviews indicat[ing] that personal opinions on the Gates case fall overwhelmingly along the familiar fault line of race.”  That is, “For the most part, minorities said Gates would not have been arrested if he were white, and police probably would never have been called to begin with.”  And, “Whites . . . tended to play down race as a factor and said tempers and egos, not skin color, caused the situation to get out of hand.” (July 26, 2009)

The national “talk about race” headed South.  A Miami Herald editorial, called “It’s time for our nation to talk about race,” began, “Let’s have [an] honest national encounter on racial progress.”  According to the editorial, “racial progress” is strictly an individual matter:

We can start by everyone—white, black, brown—admitting that America’s ugly racist history has left scars, and that racism (drawing conclusions about others based on their race) is practiced by individuals of every ethnic or racial group. . . . Let’s not miss this opportunity as a nation to talk—and listen—honestly about race, how far America has come and still how much more we have to go. (July 28, 2009)

The “racially charged debate” moved Westward.  The Tulsa World carried a story titled, “The moment is beer:  Obama, Gates, Crowley to chat,” which began, “Offering cold beer and careful words, President Barrack Obama is trying to bury a political distraction and show the U.S. how conversation can help ease racial conflict.”  The story’s “conversation” continues, “For now, his stated agenda is simply to allow for a good, productive conversation among the three men.  The hope, in turn, is that people in communities across the U.S. will see the meeting as a model for how to solve differences—more listening, less shooting from the lip.”  The story quotes “Kelly McBride, a specialist in ethics at the Poynter Institute journalism center,” who stresses the individual nature of President Obama’s so-called “Beer Summit” with Sargeant Crowley and Professor Gates:

Everybody can walk out of the meeting thinking exactly what they thought walking in, and that would be fine. . . . But I would hope they would understand the others’ positions.  If they get that far, it could be a model for what we should be doing when things like this happen again.  Because it’s going to happen again.” (By Ben Feller, Associated Press Writer, July 30, 2009).

The “eye-opening dialogue on race” appeared in the Southwest.  The power of interracial “dialogue” to create understanding and “change” is the bottom line of a story in the Austin Statesman on “Harvard prof, arresting policeman to talk again.”  A quoted Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney is given the piece’s last word:

Politics aside, the most important thing that should come out of today is that two people sat down and talked to one another. . . . That is how real change happens, when people are willing to challenge their own biases by talking to people who are different from themselves. (By Philip Elliott, Associated Press writer, July 31, 2009)

The “ongoing discussion over race in America” reached the West Coast.  A Los Angeles Times story on “Obama cheers a ‘teachable moment’ over beer with Gates, Crowley,” and illustrated with a photo of the three and Vice President Joe Biden drinking beer in the Rose Garden, reported that the talk will continue: “For the two men who raised their mugs with the president and vice president . . . the discussion on race and policing will go on.  Sgt. Crowley,” the story added, “said afterward that he and African American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had made plans to talk further in a more private setting.” (July 31, 2009)

The white-controlled media’s emphasis on a “national debate on race” serves to redefine America’s historic, institutionalized racial inequities as individual and interpersonal rather than institutional and governmental issues.  The heralding of a “racial debate” automatically assumes an equality between white and black persons and other people of color that does not exist—an equality of responsibility for the nation’s ingrained racial inequities and of power to resolve them.  In fact, the institutionalized inequities are made invisible by trumpeting a “colorblind” society.  Such assumed equity may be called the racism of equality, as it denies and diverts attention from the nation’s inequitable status quo.

Presto!  In a flash of “white magic,” the USA’s defining, institutionalized white-controlled hierarchy of access to power and security vanishes.  The ism is made to disappear from “race”—and to reappear in the form of individual behavior and interpersonal relationships.

Similar to talk, the “white magic” of systemic racism uses code words to make America’s inequitable racial hierarchy disappear.  Code words are a subtle way by which to remove the ism from “race.”  Mainstream media especially employ code words to reinterpret racism as an interpersonal matter between individuals not an institutional and policy issue.  This disappearing act is performed by the dominant press’s constant use of the word “race” and avoidance of “racism” as much as possible.

Thus, as previously quoted, the “confrontation . . . between” Officer Crowley/Professor Gates is filled with code words:  “An Encounter That Provoked A Talk on Race;” “a heated national debate on race;” “Gates’ case strikes nerve, stirs racial debate;” “fault line of race;” “whites tended to play down race as a factor . . . tempers and egos, not skin color, caused the situation to get out of hand;” “ugly racial history;” “inflamed tensions,” “issues of race;” “racism . . .is practiced by individuals of every ethnic or racial group;” “talk-and-listen honestly about race;” “racial conflict,” “a model for how to share differences;” “understand the others’ positions;” “the most important thing . . . is that two people sat down and talked to one another;” “the discussion of race and policing will go on. . . in a more private setting.” [italics added].

Code words allow the subject to be referred to as “race,” “race relations.”  The problem may then be identified as “inflamed tensions,” “volatile affair.”  If the subject and problem are presented as individual and interpersonal, the solution naturally follows: “Talk-and-listen-honestly about race and ethnicity;” “Talk to one another . . .  That is how real change happens.”  It is about reconciliation not restitution.  Here the ism is taken out of “race” by being removed from its historical roots and institutional branches and redefined as an interpersonal issue between individuals.

Shazam!  In a printed stroke of “white magic,” America’s embedded, structurally maintained racial inequities disappear.  In a flash, for example, the National Urban League’s 288-page “State of Black America 2009: Message to the President” is gone.  Gone is the finding that “even as an African American man holds the highest office [in] the country, African Americans remain twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and more than six times as likely to be incarcerated.”

Gone is the National Urban League report’s finding that the “2009 Equality Index, a statistical measurement of the status of blacks compared with whites, . . . stands at 71.1% . . . a general continuation of the status quo,” with “economics remain[ing] the area with the greatest degree of inequality, followed by social justice, health, education and civic engagement.” (“Executive Summary”)

Gone are the National Urban League’s 31 specific recommendations, including:

Ensure that the stimulus package’s green job creation includes poor urban communities.
  Increase funding for job training and placement for disadvantaged workers.
Guarantee full-day schooling for all 3 and 4 year olds.
  Expand the school day to account for working parents and families without nearby relatives to help with after-school care.
Fund mortgage counseling and education programs for minorities.
  Implement universal health care and a “comprehensive” system to provide blacks with health education (“Urban League asks Obama to address black issues,” Black Politics on the Web, Mar. 25, 2009)

Hocus Pocus!  With mainstream media talking up a code words punctuated “national dialogue about race,” the deep-seated disparities contained in the United for a Fair Economy’s 70-page report will not see the full light of day.  Called “State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression,” the report studied the silent, unacknowledged economic depression of people of color and found:

Many American Blacks today are already experiencing a silent economic depression that, in terms of unemployment, equals or exceeds the Great Depression of 1929.  Almost 12% of Blacks are unemployed; this is expected to increase to nearly 20% by 2010. . . . People of color are disproportionately poor in the United States.  Black and Latinos have poverty rates of 24% and 21% respectively, compared to 10% poverty rate for whites. (www.faireconomy.org/dream)

The “State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression” report, released on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s 80th birthday anniversary, was apparently not well received and covered by America’s white-controlled, let’s “talk about race” media.  Especially the report’s findings:

In the corporate world, we are seeing the highest executive pay and the biggest bailouts in history.  CEO pay is 344 times that of the average worker.  The riches of the few mask the deepening recession in the working class and the depression in communities of color.  . . .

Our nation’s economic policies have enabled the top 10% to accumulate 68% of the wealth, while sheltering the wealthy from sharing the nation’s risks.  The children of the wealthy are not marching off to war because their economic alternatives are bleak.  The rising cost of medical care does not require America’s millionaires and billionaires to cut back on food in order to pay medical bills.  Thousands of additional layoffs will not harm the financial security of those in the owning class.

Nor would America’s mainstream press adequately publicize and editorialize about the “State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression” report’s proposed solutions;

The US Census Bureau should change its measurement of poverty in time for the 2010 census.  The current method underestimates the numbers of the most marginalized.  These gaps give policymakers an inaccurate view of the scope of the problems of poverty.
The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) should integrate into its indicators of recession measures for wealth inequality, asset accumulation, income inequality, employer-based benefits versus employee-based benefits, and the various types of unemployment.  Together, such simple measurement changes will help bring economic problems to the forefront and end the crisis of silence about the true state of the dream of racial equality. (Ibid) 

“The State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression” report addresses the denial and diversion of a “national debate on race”:

Sadly the nation at large took the civil rights work of the 1960’s and reduced its holistic comprehensive analysis to a simplistic notion of personal and individual racism [italics added].  The civil rights movement, and civil rights efforts since the founding of the country, recognized that inequity is rooted in societal institutions, aided and abetted by personal forms of racism.  Institutional racism is embedded in the structures (i.e., cultural, organizational, governmental and academic, etc.) of our society and manifests itself in the distribution, implementation and access to resources and opportunities. . . .

Finally, we need to reconnect ourselves, via policy and our unified voices to affirmative action.  We need recognition of and apology for the U.S.’s centuries of slavery and segregation.  We need a commitment to acknowledge and repudiate the institutional and individual racism—epitomized by today’s Black depression—that still pervades our society. (Introduction: Beyond Recession, Executive Summary, Ibid.)

An earlier and classic example of the use of talk and code words to manage not mitigate America’s ongoing, and now recession-deepening “racial divide” is former President Bill Clinton’s 15-month long national “conversation about race.”  Initiated in June 1997, Clinton’s so-called “honest dialogue on race,” like today’s, assumed an equality of power and responsibility for racism between white and black persons and other people of color that does not exist.  An analysis of the coverage of the “honest dialogue” by an accommodating print media (The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe) concluded that Clinton’s long national “dialogue on race” did not close the “nation’s lingering racial divide,” but served to redefine and thus control it. (See William E. Alberts, Research Report, “Taking the “ism” Out of Racism in the 21st Century: A Study of the Print Media’s Coverage of President Clinton’s National “Dialogue on Race,” published by The William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Winter 2002, 116 pages.

The “white magic” employed by mainstream media, and others, to take the ism out of “race” is cited by University of Maryland Professor of Government and Politics Ron Walters.  Obviously not impressed with Sgt. Crowley’s media-applauded teaching of cultural diversity to police trainees, Walters writes,

Sgt. Crowley’s subjective judgement to arrest Gates was more likely to have been made on the traditional racist grounds of using his power to silence a black man, no matter how important, in order to confirm the ultimate authority, of white power in society.

Citing his book, The Price of Racial Reconciliation (The Politics of Race and Ethnicity), Professor Walters zeroes in on the critical issue of who has the powerful last word:

The voice of the victim of racism has been devalued and the voice of the perpetrators of racism is elevated because of the power they hold over the interpretation and treatment of racial events.  This is the curious way in which whites, who by every study I have seen experience racism far, far less than blacks, end up having the dominant interpretation over events. They control the power over the voice that interprets events and control over the resources dedicated—or not dedicated—to resolve them.

The consequences of this unequal power distribution in racial affairs is that there cannot be a “frank discussion” that can meaningfully resolve such issues because, in the power equation, the President must “calibrate” such events from the side of the dominant class. . . . because he has to get elected and to govern with the assent of the majority.

President Obama, Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley will have their beer in the White House, but it will only be a symbolic gesture, lacking the force to confront the monumental crime of racial profiling by the police perpetrators that has locked up tens of thousands of blacks in American prisons. (“Race, Power and the Gates Affair,” The Black Commentator, July 30, 2009).

“A more perfect union” is not about “bringing the races together” but about bringing equal access to economic and political power to the races.  It is not about “individuals of every ethnic or racial group” getting along better but about them getting by better.  It is not about the “inflamed tensions” of interracial group dynamics but about human potential and hope turned into ashes by group discrimination.  It is not about an “honest dialogue on race” but about an honest diagnosis of America’s racial inequities.  It is not about making the ism disappear from “race” but about removing racism from America’s institutions.  It is not about being “colorblind” but about being colorful.  It is about making America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access disappear.  It is about every person’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain and a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.  Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion.  He can be reached at william.alberts@bmc.org.