The Chronicle Review

Our National Postracial Hangover

With the Gates fiasco, the rosy glow has faded

July 27, 2009

My first reaction to watching the unfolding Saga of Skip Gates's Cambridge Arrest was that America's postracial bubble, like its recent economic troubles, was about to pop. The fact that some observers had never bought into the story of a race-free America purged of its past sins by a watershed presidential election had done little to diminish either that narrative's moral resonance or political weight.

Since America's racial disparities remain as deep-rooted after Barack Obama's election as they were before, it was only a matter of time until the myth of postracism exploded in our collective national face. That they would rear their ugly head in the form of an intellectual and racial cause célèbre is fitting, since black scholars and activists have been engaged in a robust debate over the meaning of race in the Age of Obama.

Suddenly Obama's recent declaration before the NAACP—that American blacks have come farther than at any other time in our country's history—seems suspect, our national progress undone by the fact that Gates's predicament has become a metaphor for the nation's legacy of racial discrimination.

Our euphoria over Obama's historic election as the nation's first black president hit an unexpected speed bump in Cambridge, Mass., home to the bastion of academic decorum, of all places. The arrest on July 16 of the prominent Harvard professor of African-American studies in his own home has sparked a media firestorm that has interrupted the growing national consensus that America has been writing a new chapter in its tortured racial history.

Fresh from filming his latest PBS documentary in China, the 58-year-old Gates found himself locked out of his well-appointed Harvard home. With the help of his African-American taxi driver, Gates successfully entered his house—but not before arousing a suspicious neighbor, who phoned the police. What happened next is the subject of competing accounts. The police report characterizes Gates as an academic turned thug: loud, rude, uncooperative, and menacingly dangerous after being asked to produce identification. Gates has countered with an entirely different scenario, one wherein he obligingly showed his Harvard identification only to be met with rude behavior. After asking for and being refused the officer's badge number, Gates was arrested. Why several police officers were needed to secure a nearly 60-year-old man who relies on a cane to get around is one of many questions asked in ensuing days.

Like a bright, streaking comet, Gates's arrest has made its way around blogs, newspaper columns, Web sites, TV shows, Twitter, and via good old-fashioned word of mouth. Not long after the 20th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee's controversial and racially charged film, Do the Right Thing, the urbane, Ivy League educated Gates, perhaps the most important and distinguished black academic of his generation, suddenly found himself a graybearded stand-in for Lee's doomed character Radio Raheem, whose assault by New York City police officers leads to the film's still powerful denouement.

Part of this story's momentum rests with Gates's public persona. Known as a bridge-builder between black scholars and white liberals, Professor Gates is the pre-eminent scholar-entrepreneur of his generation; one of the architects of a revitalized African-American-studies discipline, who has successfully built networks between academe and business, politics, culture, and the media. If this can happen to Skip Gates, whose investment in the American Dream has carried him to the highest levels of the nation, then what chance does an ordinary black person stand?

A shaken Gates has publicly expressed outrage and shock about his arrest but found newfound empathy and solidarity with the plight of ordinary black people, whose encounters with the criminal-justice system rarely end with all charges dropped, as in Gates's case. Nor do they become national and international news stories. Television coverage coincided with Gates's sharing his story on July 22 on CNN's "Black in America 2." Later that evening—at a news conference on health care, where he received a question about the professor's recent arrest—President Obama chimed in to let Gates know he had his back.

The Gates incident illustrates the complex overlap between race and class (a working-class white policeman and one of the country's most celebrated scholars who is black and now is forced to confront his blackness squarely in the mirror; blog and radio comments that sometimes carry an undercurrent of resentment at the privileged life of this particular black man). The silver lining to the entire sordid affair is the long-delayed opportunity to draw sustained attention to the interwoven problems of race, structural poverty, and the criminal-justice system—a project that Gates himself has publicly committed to pursue.

The story's race and class dynamics are complicated. Gates is well-connected enough to have the president of the United States refer to him as a friend, yet black enough to be racially profiled in his own home. The plight of tens of thousands of ordinary black men and women, sometimes educated, more often not, remains invisible and thus far more vulnerable.

The Gates controversy pulled Obama into his first major racial storm since the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. wrangle. At his news conference, Obama responded that anyone would be angry, the Cambridge police acted "stupidly," and that America had a long history of racial profiling. Police unions expressed disappointment, while civil-rights activists loudly applauded his words. (Obama later said that he "could have calibrated" the wording of his intial reaction differently, and that both Gates and the Cambridge police may have overreacted.)

The arrest may very well be remembered as an unexpected turning point in our national conversation about race. That dialogue, of course, progresses only in fits and starts, occasioned as often by racial turmoil as by racial triumph. President Obama's rise to power elicited genuine excitement and emotion among Americans and citizens of the world about the thrilling possibilities of democracy. It also gave credence to a larger narrative, one supported by the symbolic evidence of Obama's election, that racism was dead. The story was all the more compelling since the vestiges of Jim Crow and lynching are, for many people, something only to be read about in history books or viewed in documentaries.

The story also proved to be dangerous.

An overwhelming number of black people continue to reside on the margins of society, a permanent underclass seemingly fated to violent and early death, incarceration, poverty, and disease. Inadvertently, the public images of President Obama and, until recently at least, Professor Gates, supported the narrative of a postracial America. After all, how could a country where a black man can become president and another be one of Harvard's most powerful professors be racist?

Perhaps the final lesson to be learned from all of this, one that Gates himself seemed to acknowledge, is that for all of America's racial progress, and in spite of the very real class divisions within the black community, race retains stubborn political and social bonds among black people that require shared affinity, identification, and sacrifice. Even in the Age of Obama (or perhaps especially in the Age of Obama), the struggle for racial and economic justice remains fraught. The Gates incident has become a new metaphor for America's still-tormented racial politics. More than a century ago, the black scholar and civil-rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois explained that African-Americans were too often seen as "problems" to be studied, discarded, lynched, or ignored, but never as full-blooded human beings whose progress remained vital to the success of the nation's democratic experiment. If this controversy helps to spur a national conversation about race and democracy, one that unblinkingly examines the persistence of black poverty and incarceration even as it exults in Obama's election, then we will at least inch forward on the long road toward racial maturity, where the idea of a postracial American future remains an unrealizable but worthy goal rather than a political fait accompli.

Peniel E. Joseph is an associate professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt and Company, 2006). His new book, From Black Power to Barack Obama, will be published in January by Basic Books.