Obama Cheapened the Race Conversation

Question: What did the Gates incident teach us?

Glen Loury: I don't know that it can teach us all that much. I thought it was overblown as being emblematic of race relations or profiling, or anything of that sort. I didn't read it as insightful or really useful in that regard.

Though I do think how we reacted to the incident, what it became, drawing the president in and so on; perhaps would tell us something about, and this was my argument in the piece, how we process racial issues. How we talk and don't talk about them, maybe how we are quick to repair to some conventional and pat storyline about them.

The country has had a problem, is trying to overcome it. Some people are slower at that than others. There's a racist behind every bush. Let's not tolerate the racists; this kind of talk.

And I just thought the Gates' incident, and again, the president's handling of it, showed the thinness of that narrative; how that line was probably not any longer, if ever it was adequate, to capture the reality of our racial condition, if you will.

Question: What’s the reality of our racial condition?

Glen Loury: I don't want to pretend to omniscience here, but I'd say there are several aspects of it that I would point out.

One is the continuing fact of a developmental lag, or a gap, between the African-American population taken as a whole, not of course, including every person, on the one hand; and much of the rest of the country, on the other.

But actually, not the only group of people who manifest certain of the kinds of problems that I would talk about here and that are reflected in policing and prisons. Problems of poor education and intermittent employment and limited full human development. Problems of fragile and fractured communities and families of large numbers of under-socialized and under-developed young people who end up getting into trouble.

I could go on, and you see the line that this would draw. It would say that the African American population, taken as a whole, lags behind on the average along many of these dimensions. This is a stubborn reality and it has consequences. It can't be easily reconciled with a pat account about racism and discrimination that lets us relax into saying when we finally get this right, when we get rid of racism, when we reach the post-racial society, everything is going to be okay.

Well, no, because along the way here, as we've not yet been in this racial nirvana, facts on the ground have been created.

Blighted lives have played themselves out and human difficulties have developed. And these are stark, they're staring us in the face, they're the subtexts for a lot of our politics; they're the story behind the story. So when Gates, a Harvard professor, God bless him, I certainly intend him no ill will. But when he trots out this story about a racist, rogue police officer, and when he begins to embrace this rhetoric of racial profiling; and when the president buys into this, and unlike what the wisdom that he typically exhibits, President Obama, in conducting public affairs, makes a huge mistake by buying into this. It is a distraction from the real story.

The real story -- two and a quarter million Americans, half of whom are black, under lock and key on a given day -- the real story, stop and frisk as the police technique du jour, in city after city around this country where the rubber hits the road, in terms of profiling; where people are getting sent off to Richter's Island because they had a joint in their pocket, and so forth and so on.

Where the real story is kids learning how to be men from other kids who've been locked up for five years and then get out, because they all get out, go back to the same neighborhoods and strut their new bodies and their tattoos and their hardened attitudes as a part of the social counseling that ends up forming the normative structure of these communities. And I'm talking about tens upon tens, upon tens of thousands of them, in and out, in and out of this system.

If I may say so, how dare a Harvard professor and a president of the United States cheapen the serious political conversation that we have to have about locking up millions of our fellow citizens, by repairing to a pat all too familiar a storyline about racism and profiling in the abstract, against black men in general, even on Martha's Vineyard. I'm telling you that that is not the politics of change that we were promised during the campaign of 2008.

Recorded on: August 18, 2009.

Economist Glenn Loury is angry that the President’s handling of Louis Gates’ arrest distracted from the real issues.

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