Friday, July 24, 2009

A Cooler Head Prevails: Race Wisdom

President Obama was mentioning how he wished "cooler heads" had prevailed during the encounter between Gates and the white police officer. And speaking of cooler heads, I've read several articles on the case, but so far Brent Staples' President Obama, Professor Gates, and the Cambridge Police is especially useful for understanding why large numbers of observers might have been taken aback by Obama's comments. At one point, Staples writers that
Successful African-Americans — whether they are sports stars, entertainers or politicians — are often accorded a more tortured significance. In addition to being held up as proof that racism has been extinguished, they are often employed as weapons in the age-old campaign to discredit, and even demean, the disadvantaged.

Obama has frequently been employed as a weapon against the disadvantaged.

Yet, the president, notes Staples, "has refused to play this role, even though people have tried to thrust it upon him."

According to Staples, African Americans who do favor the idea that it is "only hard-working, morally upright people who succeed, and lazy, morally defective people who do not" often end up "trumpeting exceptionalism, playing down the significance of discrimination, and lecturing black people (nearly always in front of white audiences) to stop whining about racism and get on with it."

The conversation and intrigue with the Gates' case seems to have grown rapidly. There's already a wikipedia entry on the incident, by the way. However, Staples' editorial stands out among the various other writings so far because of how deftly he references a broader range of inter and intra-racial ideas concerning this conflict--a conflict that is definitely bound up in perceptions about race.

And perhaps more importantly, the race wisdom that permeates Staples' commentary reminds us how we might profit with more access to cool headed writers with knowledge of African American experience.

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