Lani Guinier’s Take on the Skip Gates “Mini-Drama”

By The Root Brass | Posted: July 27, 2009 at 11:03 am

A Beer Bromance at the White House? Can Obama’s beer fest do anything to improve the relationship between black people and the cops who arrest them? Or does it waste valuable presidential time?

I applaud President Obama’s willingness to step into this debate. Frankly, however, the conversation that needs to happen goes well beyond the one between President Obama, Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley. The president is in a position to use this encounter to engage the country—and not just the participants on the now infamous porch scenario—in a thorough vetting of the multiple ways that race still interacts with gender and class and power in our society as whole. Both the police officer and the professor, unfamiliar with each other, were nevertheless playing out longstanding clashes between town and gown. Fighting it out on that porch scene were the expectations of respect that come with privilege and property against the expectations of respect that come with a badge and a gun. Pitting these two powerful narratives against each other was a legacy of racism and social control from a time in our history when blacks did not own property; they were property. At the same time, we have a contemporary criminal justice system that exercises outsized control as the major urban policy instrument for controlling the poor.

The conversation might begin with the hope of figuring out what each man should or could have done differently to de-escalate this situation. But the ultimate goal of the conversation should be to explore the encounter as a potent learning moment for the entire country. The mini-drama that occurred on a porch in Cambridge is much bigger than the encounter between Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley, in other words. This is a story of America that we ignore at our collective peril.

—Lani Guinier