Glenn C. Loury: Obama, Gates and the American Black Man





[Glenn C. Loury, a professor of economics and social sciences at Brown University, is the author, most recently, of “Race, Incarceration and American Values.”]

IN a speech delivered earlier this year, during Black History Month, Attorney General Eric Holder drew headlines by criticizing the tenor of public discourse on race. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” Mr. Holder said, “in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” The nation’s leading law enforcement officer — who happens also to be an African-American man — was widely criticized for making this provocative comment.

Yet during this past week — as I have watched the controversy unfold over the arrest of a black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., by a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer, James Crowley — I have come to appreciate the prescience of Mr. Holder’s remark. It is as though we are determined to prove him right — as if our talk about race must be forced into a comfortable and familiar, if false, narrative where villains (“racists”) and heroes (“victims of racism”) are clear-cut, and where all one need do to stand on the right side of history is to engage in a bit of moral sanctimony.

This convenient story line is reflected in an all-too-familiar narrative: “Here we are, 45 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with a black man in the White House. And yet, it is still the case that a distinguished Harvard professor, standing on his own front step, can be treated like a common criminal simply because he’s black. Obviously it is way too soon to declare that we have entered a post-racial era ... .”

As far as I am concerned, the ubiquity of this narrative shows that we are incapable of talking straight with one another about race. And this much-publicized incident is emblematic of precisely nothing at all. Rather, the Gates arrest is a made-for-cable-TV tempest in a teapot. It is the rough equivalent of a black man being thrown out of a restaurant after having berated an indifferent maître d’ for showing him to a table by the kitchen door, all the while declaring what everybody is supposed to know: this is what happens to a black man in America....



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