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The Real “Teachable Moment”

When black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and white Cambridge, MA police Sgt. James Crowley sit at the White House with President Barack Obama over beers Thursday evening, the rest of the nation will look on with the familiar confusion that attends disputed matters of race.

For those who missed the twists and turns of this soap opera-like story, Crowley responded on July 16 to a call about two men who looked like they were breaking into a house in an affluent neighborhood near the Harvard campus. As it turned out, Gates lives in the house and forced his way in because the lock was jammed.

An outraged Gates mouthed off at the doubting cop and accused him of racism, which led to the professor being hauled to jail for disorderly conduct. The national media jumped on the story, allowing average Americans to judge the actors and comment on the story’s overarching meaning in their lives.

Even President Obama wandered into the middle of this racial Rorschach, saying the Cambridge police “acted stupidly.” That was like dousing glowing coals with fresh lighter fluid. Now the nation’s first black president wants “to take a step back” and allow for a “teachable moment” to replace the overheated words.

Gates and Crowley are expected to wet their whistle with a “Cheers" finale, as a friend of mine described how Boston-area disputes are sociably resolved—in a pub over foamy mugs.

But is that the “teachable moment?”

When it comes to conflicting views of race in America, can any of us recognize a genuine teachable moment? Can we pause from living separate lives in this country long enough to comprehend outside of boldly drawn racial lines? Do we recognize the exact instance when racial friction glows with understanding instead of sears with anger?

For example, Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post predicts that nothing will come of all the race dialogue sparked by Gates’ arrest. He cites a litany of past failed opportunities for an honest national racial dialogue in the wake of other racially sensitive news events. Capehart concludes no progress was made because black and white Americans fear too much and trust too little to “listen to the other with an open mind to try to understand where the other comes from.”

Radley Balko, a senior editor at Reason magazine, has another interpretation that conforms to his libertarian leanings. Balko writes that Gates’ arrest shouldn’t be framed in racial terms, but as a question of civil liberties. “[I]t’s about police arrest powers, and the right to criticize armed agents of the government,” he says.

Then, there’s the This Week in Blackness.com writer, who hides behind the nom d’plume Phantom Negro—apparently fearful of retribution not by white cops, but the influential black academic—who thinks Gates suffered from class consciousness and not racial oppression in his dealing with the police.

“He isn’t outraged because he feels he was the victim of racial profiling by the police,” Phantom Negro writes. “He didn’t resent being identified as black; he resented being identified as that kind of black, the kind of black that can be hassled and pushed around by simpleton cops.”

These analyses have thoughtful points, but they all miss the real teachable moment and the greater message. The Gates-Crowley Affair is a signal episode of racial progress. We don’t see it because we’re looking in the wrong places and drawing tired, old-school conclusions.

Think of it this way: Gates sassed a Boston-area cop in broad daylight and in front of other blue-suited officers, and he lived to make a national case of it. In fact, he plans to press the issue in a forthcoming PBS special on racial profiling. He will lunch out on this for years to come.

Granted, Gates should never have been arrested in the first place. But his four hours in lock-up did nothing but temporarily inconvenience and humble him—he was never in any danger of losing life or limb. And he had many and powerful friends in high places—including the president of the United States—watching his back.

That’s real progress from the bad old days. My late father, who grew up in rural North Carolina, would have danced in the streets to have witnessed what Gates did and will do. By focusing on what racism that persists—and will always be among us—we lose sight of the racism that is dead and buried.

Racial healing in this nation is more than a beer-fueled debate. It’s real, tangible, and visible. It’s a slow and inevitable, messy and forward-lurching process that we are still perfecting. Don’t be confused. This isn’t a post-racial anything. Our national work isn’t done, of course, and may never be finished. That’s because human beings aren’t—and probably won’t ever be—perfect.

But a great racial democratizing process is loose in this land. It can’t be stopped or turned back. It stares back at us on the television screen or sits among us in the workplace or educates our children. And it deserves our attention and praise at every opportunity.

We have only to open our eyes—and minds—to see and experience the many, daily teachable moments.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.