Friday, July 31, 2009

American conversations

The first was moulded by class, "race," hierarchy, and an intersection of the powers that all of those things generate. A relatively privileged Black man, a white police officer, state force, cultural and social capital clashed. In the clamour humanity was lost: discourses of the day took over, as though words spoke the people involved.

The second bracketed all of those things. When the President of the United States shoos away the media, rolls up his shirtsleeves and knocks back a cold one with you, something different becomes possible. Sgt. James Crowley left his lawyer and his union rep outside. He and Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. left their families somewhere in the White House. The President brought along his Vice-President, perhaps (since this on-going narrative is shot through with racial themes) to make Crowley feel more comfortable, although I speculate.

And they talked. And, more importantly, perhaps, they may have listened.

A reader accused me of pining for the Kumbaya moment, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are what we are, shaped by the same forces that led to that first conversation. The President is still the President, the Professor still the Professor, the Sergeant still the Sergeant: these titles are more than empty abstractions, they are place-markers. Once again different worlds converged, but those worlds were not transformed. Scales do not fall from eyes and angel choirs sing when four men sit down for a beer or two.

But the extraordinary circumstances of the meeting, even its artifice, offer up possibilities. "Race" is one of the most salient characteristics of American culture, and its most intractable problem. And Obama, whose presidential performance has quickly and inevitably been shaped by the machine, and has therefore disappointed, showed nothing less than brilliant leadership on this occasion.

The substance of the conversation remains private, and the media have wondered aloud in bewildered fashion where the "teachable moment" might be. It was right in front of them, of course. The very fact that a conversation of this kind took place, uncomfortable as it might have been in some respects, teaches much. And from it much can be learned.

The complex structures of society, permeated as they are with power relationships and inequalities, institutional and individual, cannot be wished away. But neither are they static. Up to now, Americans have taken two general approaches to the "race" question: they have either pretended it isn't there--as in the cant phrase "post-racial"--or they have retreated into the polarizing discourses of "race," well-worn rhetorical moves that define the problem but have not begun to resolve it.

Now, placed before everyone, is another approach, modeled at the very highest level of American society: slowing down, catching one's breath, and talking from the heart. One iconic conversation may well lead to others. Talking, of course, has little effect by itself on the vast structures of unequal relations that characterize the post-industrial global matrix. But talking inevitably gives rise to projected possibilities, and those, ultimately, to action.

Of course the conversations about this conversation will also have their place, although so many of them are off the mark. But I liked what Sgt. Crowley had to say at his press conference after the meet, amid a flurry of platitudes about agreeing to disagree and not dwelling in the past and looking forward to the future, and so on. He said he would like to take "a few days off to reflect on the events of the past couple of weeks."

That's where it begins.

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