As representatives of the fourth leg of democracy, I wish that reporters had framed differently the coverage of President Obama’s meeting with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley. Framing the meeting as a “beer summit” is immediately dismissive of what could be an important turning point in the public discourse on race. The intention of this meeting wasn’t to solve the problem of racism in this country, as some of the questions from the press may have suggested.
I think that President Obama is smart enough to understand that one meeting over a beer isn’t going to provide the necessary platform to heal the nation of it’s wounds about the legacy of slavery. However, I think that an informal meeting over a beer can diffuse a painful situation on a topic that many Americans have been quick to respond to and have many difficult conversations about.
No one is perfect in this conversation; I have no problem believing that Gates lost his cool when it probably wasn’t appropriate; I don’t think that Obama chose his words well when he said that the Cambridge police acted stupidly; I have no doubt that Sgt. Crowley would never have arrested Dr. Gates had he been a white man. These are all actions that are going to provoke justifiable anger.
The ugliness of racism is a reality that we all live with. White people can’t know what it’s like to experience racism, and people of all colors are burdened with the guilt of racism, try as we might to resist it within ourselves. We may not be racists, but we sometimes act in racist ways, most times with the opposite intentions.
We have to come together in honesty, empathy, and forgiveness for ourselves and each other. Whether it’s over a beer, a cup of coffee, or over Facebook, I think we need to risk saying stupid things, be ready to apologize, and be ready to forgive. This is the only way we’re going to be able to foster real healing on the issue of racism.