The Beer Summit Revisited

On July 1, the findings of an “independent review” of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates were issued in a press release.  This report roughly coincided with the one-year anniversary of the celebrated dust-up (which occurred July 16, 2009) between the African American professor and Sgt. James Crowley, the white Cambridge, Massachusetts policeman.

The bare-bones account of what happened is that a woman passerby saw Gates attempting to enter his home, and thought (presumably because he was black, and it was an upscale neighborhood, and he appeared to be struggling with the door) that he was a burglar.  She called 911.  The police arrived and confronted Gates on his front porch.  Believing he had been racially profiled, Gates lashed out in defiant indignation.

His outburst got him arrested for disorderly conduct, placed in handcuffs, and taken to the Cambridge police station.  Although things were eventually sorted out and all charges dropped, the incident triggered numerous responses from African American and human rights groups, and received international coverage.

The episode ended amicably a couple weeks later (July 30) when President Obama invited the white cop and black professor to join him and Vice-President Biden for a friendly brewski in a shaded courtyard adjacent to the White House Rose Garden in what became known as the “Beer Summit.”

As clumsy and unfortunate as the Gates’ arrest was, the findings of the subsequent investigation—conducted by a 12-person panel composed of “law enforcement personnel, academics, and experts on race relations and conflict resolution,” and chaired by one Charles Wexler—were equally unfortunate.

Astonishingly, after months of careful scrutiny the panel reached the singularly anti-climatic conclusion that the confrontation had been (drumroll, please) “avoidable.”

How was this unedifying bit of glorified committee-speak worthy of a press release?  Of course the Gates episode was avoidable.  How could it not be avoidable?  World War I was avoidable; the invasion of Iraq was avoidable; the assassination of JFK was avoidable; production of the Edsel was avoidable.

Indeed, to conclude that a confrontation was “unavoidable” is to stake out an extreme metaphysical position, one steeped in fatalism and determinism.  It’s almost like saying the episode was destined to happen, that it fell outside the boundaries of human influence, which is preposterous.  Earthquakes and bad weather are unavoidable. Everything else isn’t.

Gates’ indignation was understandable.  Besides being a literary critic, professor, editor, and Harvard Ph.D., the man is 60 years old, for crying out loud—not exactly the typical profile of a B&E (breaking and entering) specialist.  The cops can stick to their “protect and serve” story all they like, but one has to believe that Gates being black was a determining factor.

Some years ago the CBS show Sixty Minutes did  a segment where a white producer telephoned various landlords of apartment buildings to verify that there were still apartments available.  But when a well-dressed black man showed up 15 minutes later to rent the apartment, he was told there were no vacancies.  When he mentioned the recent phone call, the landlord denied any knowledge of it.  This happened repeatedly.

In an episode of Michael Moore’s old television show, TV Nation, they tried a similar experiment.  They had a young black man in New York City stand at the curb and attempt to hail a cab.  He was repeatedly ignored.  The cab drivers simply wouldn’t stop to pick him up.

The producers stationed a white man on the same curb, not far from the black man, and this guy instantly got a ride.  It happened repeatedly.  They then dressed the black man in a tuxedo.  Still no luck.  Then they had him in a tuxedo, carrying a large bouquet of flowers.  Still no luck.  Apparently, even the newly arrived Pakistani cabbies had already learned not to accept the soul brothers as fares.

The show’s producers then had this black man wearing a tuxedo, holding a bouquet of flowers, and carrying a tiny baby in his arms.  Nope, still couldn’t get a ride.

These examples bring to mind an episode of my own, the memory of which still causes me embarrassment.  I was in my car, stopped at a red light at a major intersection, with my window halfway down.  The driver of the car on my left lightly honked his horn to get my attention.  He was an African American man in his thirties.

With his passenger window down, he politely called out to me, “Can you tell me how to get to Interstate 5?”  I was driving a new car, a Honda Accord I had just purchased a few weeks earlier, and still wasn’t familiar with the instruments.  My previous car had been an old Volkswagen bug, which had manual roll-down windows.

As I attempted to lower my window, I mistakenly hit the wrong switch.  Instead of pressing the power-window button, I hit the door-lock button, automatically locking all four doors.

There was this loud, metallic click-click-click-click sound, which made it appear that I had looked over at this fellow, seen he was African American (“Oh, my God, a Negro!”), and instantly locked all four doors of my vehicle.  I still cringe at the memory.

 

WORDS THAT STICK

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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