When it was announced that President Obama, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. and Police Sgt. James Crowley would hold a beer summit in the White House, the suds tag lines began flowing. They included "The Audacity of Hops," "A Thousand Points of Bud Light" and my favorite, "Yes, Three Cans."
Late night comedians also got a buzz from the event. Bill Maher said, "I don't know if this is a case of racism. The police in Cambridge say it had nothing to do with Gates being Black. They said they would have given the same treatment to any minority." Conan said, "The meeting got off to a rough start when a neighbor called the police to say Gates was breaking into the White House." Jokes aside, the president said Gates being arrested on his own porch by police should be used as a teachable moment.
But three weeks after the highly-publicized arrest, nothing has been taught to the public about race relations. Not only have there been no lessons, there hasn't even been a lesson plan. Because President Obama stated that Cambridge police "acted stupidly," he was subjected to a barrage of criticism. And for tactical reasons, the focus was shifted from using the incident as a teaching moment to putting it behind us. From the president's perspective, the controversy over his use of words detracted from the administration's major push to get a health care bill passed by Congress.
For the rest of us, however, we shouldn't rush to put the controversy behind us. That's because whether most Americans admit it or not, we are not past our past.
Historian Eric Foner, former president of the American Historical Association, observed: "For two and a half centuries, the large majority of African-Americans were held in slavery, and even after emancipation were subjected to discrimination in every aspect of their lives. Other minority groups have suffered severe inequalities as well. Today, while the nation has made great progress in eradicating the ‘color line,' the legacy of slavery and segregation remains alive in numerous aspects of American society."
has been a sharp one. On the guilt or innocence of O.J. Simpson, Whites and Blacks were sharply divided. Even on a non-racial topic such as Hurricane Katrina, there was a difference of opinion.
There have been some hopeful signs as well. For example, a New York Times/CBS poll released in April found that the election of Barack Obama has improved the perception of race relations. Two-thirds of Americans describe race relations as generally good and the percentage of African-Americans holding that view has doubled since last July.
But improving race relations is too important to be left to President Obama or a beer summit at the White House. A major impediment to racial progress is the lack of meaningful interaction between the races away from the workplace. One of the things that helped race relations in the 1960s were structured programs that allowed people of all races to talk directly with one another. Perhaps they should be revived. Today, we still talk about race, but usually among our own racial group. Of course, we need to do more than talk.
When I began my journalism career as a reporter for Sports Illustrated (SI) in 1970, most of my friends growing up in segregated Alabama were African-Americans. Also starting at SI in New York were Larry Keith, a proud North Carolinian, Ron Scott, a devout Mormon from Utah, Kent Hannon and Stephanie Salter from Indiana, Jim Kaplan from Boston and Don Delliquanti from New Jersey. At the time, I was the lone Black reporter at the magazine.
Although we came from different backgrounds and in a way were competing for the same promotions, we developed genuine friendships, many of which continue to this day.
No one set out to break any racial, religious or social barriers. Rather, we spent a lot of time together away from the office, playing touch football, basketball, softball, and attending parties together. Friendships developed naturally from those interactions.
A similar thing happened to me in Washington. I developed a close friendship with Craig Trygstad, executive director of Youth Communication, a teen news service. Craig grew up in a White farming community in Minnesota. We came together through our interest in training young people for careers in journalism. I eventually became chairman of his Board America's racial divide and later served as the best man in his wedding.
My experience over the years has been that racial progress is aided by genuine interaction between equals. The problem is that too many Whites and too many of us, both Blacks and Whites have stopped trying to bridge the racial gap. With the nation becoming increasingly diverse - Latinos and Asians can't be left out of the equation - all of us have an obligation to eradicate cripling barriers. If we don't, we'll have nobody to blame but ourselves.
[George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Website, www.georgecurry.com.]