Updated: Oct 17, 2020
In 2009, Americans lost hope that President Obama would lead the nation in a discourse on race when he invited two men—one Black, one White—to the White House for a “beer summit.” The press described the meeting as a failure. Eleven years later, in 2020, one of the participants, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor and a Black man, revealed it to be a sham. The other participant was James Crowley, the White police officer who arrested Gates for “breaking” into his own home.
Here are the facts: Gates returned from a trip abroad to find his front door damaged and jammed. He and his driver walked to the back of the house, where Gates opened the back door with his key, turned off the alarm, and returned to the front door. Together, Gates and his Black driver forced it open from the outside. Observing this, a White neighbor called the police to report a burglary in progress. The responding officer found Gates alone inside his house and asked him to step outside. Enraged, Gates refused and showed Sgt. Crowley a photo ID that proved he was in his own home. Gates asked Crowley for his name and badge number. The officer refused and arrested Gates for disorderly conduct.
President Obama, a friend of Gates, got involved, telling reporters that Crowley had acted “stupidly.” Over beers at the White House, Obama and vice president Joe Biden discussed the incident with Gates and Crowley. Crowley, who taught a course on racial profiling at the police academy, defended his actions. The news widely reported that Crowley refused to apologize for his actions. A columnist for USA Today opined: “[T]hat ‘summit’ told the nation that’s how to treat African Americans and their concerns: Dismissively, with no need for accountability, and a smile thrown in for show.” The columnist was more on target than she might have expected: Not only did Crowley refuse to apologize, but the conversation was superficial.
In 2020, Gates opened up about what happened at the “beer summit.” He explained:
“When the policeman, Sgt. Crowley and I met, I said, ‘Why did you arrest me?’ He said, ‘I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to go home to my wife because I was convinced that your partner was upstairs, and he was going to come down and blow me away.’ He told me he had gotten a call: ‘Two black guys are breaking into this house. One of them answers the door—me—when he rang the bell, and I’m stepping over suitcases because I’d just come back from a trip.’ Unbeknown to me, one pattern of thievery is bringing empty suitcases to a house. So the officer saw a black face, he saw the suitcases. That’s part of a profile. I was what Barbara Johnson [author of The Critical Difference] calls ‘an already-read text.’ He couldn’t hear me, couldn’t see me.”
By this point in the pre-beer summit conversation, Gates had already sized up Crowley: “I didn’t get [the racist] vibe from him.”
“He and I went off and did the beer summit ourselves. I said, ‘Look, I don’t know about you, man, but I just want this to go away.’ He goes, ‘This is a nightmare.’ I said to him: ‘The president has come under attack. Racism’s coming out of the floor. I’m sure you’re a decent person. I forgive you. Let’s move on.’ He goes, ‘That would be the best thing that could happen.’”
When the president arrived, Gates told him: “Mr. President, we had a great conversation in the library.” Obama replied, “Oh, it sounds like it’s all settled.” Gates admitted: “The actual beer summit was us doing small talk.”
Thus, the pre-beer summit was a quick explanation of why Crowley arrested Gates, an account that Gates accepted when he realized that Crowley thought he was in danger. But it only touched the surface, and if they had continued the conversation in earnest, stronger feelings and uncomfortable questions likely would have emerged: Why did Crowley handcuff and arrest Gates after he proved he was at home? Why didn’t he release Gates, or just issue a summons? Why was Gates so willing to put this all behind him when the situation so incensed him? They could have discussed these issues at the beer summit. Professor Noliwe Roots, explains that when “we look for excuses to close off those discussions, we allow misperceptions to spread.” She quotes author James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Orlando Patterson, a Harvard professor who specializes in race, says that racism persists because White people like the status quo. They are not prepared to give up the benefits of White privilege. But after the murder of George Floyd, many people are experiencing White Shame and feel the need to talk about their guilt.
White people like the status quo. They are not prepared to give up the benefits of white privilege.
In a New York Times article, writers Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond describe White Shame: “What if I’m doing or saying insensitive things without realizing it? I don’t talk about my feelings because it’s hard to justify doing so while people of color are dying due to systemic racism, and making this conversation about me would be again centering whiteness. Yet bottling it up makes me feel an existential anger that I have a hard time channeling since I don’t know my place. Instead of harnessing my privilege for greater good, I’m curled up in a ball of shame.”
Black author Ta-Nehisi Coates claims, “I’ve never seen white guilt’ or ‘white ignorance’ do a damn thing for black folks.” Damon Young, the Black satirist and author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, agrees. In an op-ed for the New York Times, he complained that after the George Floyd protests, White people feel it is necessary to must have a “Serious Conversation About Racism” whenever they meet a “Black person who just happens to be Black.” “This isn’t a new phenomenon,” says Young. “I’ve been SCARed before in the grocery store express aisle between pick-up hoop games at the gym, while getting a colonoscopy, and at least 82 percent of the unsolicited emails I get are drive-by SCARings.” He concludes: “The white people who do this don’t realize (or maybe just don’t give a damn) that we’re on different timelines. You learned yesterday what white privilege means? Great! Welcome to 1962. This, however, doesn’t mean I need to engage you about it today. Or tomorrow. Or ever. What’s happening now is a start. But it’s just that. A start. Whether America has the will and the rigor and the stamina to see this through is yet to be seen, and I won’t hold my breath waiting for it.”
“What’s happening now is a start. But it’s just that. A start.
These post-George Floyd, post-Trayvon Martin, post-Freddie Gray discussions about race are not novel. Americans have been talking about race for hundreds of years. In researching a book about the founding of the Society of Woman Geographers, I stumbled across some early discussions about discrimination against people of color, women, and gay people. In the next few posts, I will share some material that fell to the cutting floor during relentless editing. These stories still resonate today, as we continue to work through issues that divide our nation.
Other Posts in this Series: