Two weeks ago, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. got a lesson on race in America, and as a result, so have the rest of us. A prominent Harvard scholar on race in America, Professor Gates told NY Times Columnist Charles Blow that he has generally lived in “a cocoon of racial tolerance, enlightenment and reason.” However, on the day that he returned from a trip to China and had trouble opening his front door, he became what Blow called “a member of the Club” – the 66% of Black men in America who told the New York Times that they felt they had been stopped by the police because of their race. We don’t know whether Officer Crowley treated the professor differently because he was Black. Officer Crowley might not even know. Crowley teaches other officers how to avoid racial profiling, but can he avoid his own unsconcious feelings about race? What we do know is that Professor Gates’ belief that he was treated differently because he was Black was entirely rational, given the history of race in America and in the Boston area. Professor Gates writes about this history in his scholarship, and he teaches about it in his classes. On that summer day, the academic became real for Professor Gates.
I vividly remember the day that the academic became real for me. In law school in another New England city, I learned a lot about race in America from my classes and my African American classmates. The spring of my second year, a white female and Black male friend and I looked to rent an apartment together. My white female friend had made the appointment to see the apartment, but when we showed up with our Black friend, we were told the apartment was no longer available. We went to lunch together and stared at each other blankly, asking, “Did that really happen? Are we victims of discrimination?” The same thing happened at another apartment building that afternoon. We later confirmed with friends that lived at both buildings that apartments were still available in both buildings. We’ll never know for sure whether we were treated differently because my roommate was Black. What we did know was that we had been taught another lesson on race in America.
My experience, like that of Professor Gates and Officer Crowley, is typical of how people’s experiences are “colored” by racial differences. Often, we don’t know whether our actions, or those of other people, are motivated by racial prejudice. The lesson we can learn from Professor Gates is that race always matters – it is unrealistic to assume that it doesn’t. What President Obama is trying to do today with his “beer summit” is what we all need to do – recognize that race influences all of us, talk about our differences, and try to understand each other. When we can do that, then we will have indeed learned a positive lesson about race in America.