Paula B. Mays: A Teachable Moment

Dominating the news this lazy July week of summer was the arrest of the prominent Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates. Professor Gates teaches undergraduate and graduate courses as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and as Professor of English at Harvard.

Although there have been varying accounts of the story, the gist appears to be that Professor Gates returned from a trip to China and was unable to enter his home. Gates and his driver proceeded to enter the home by a side entrance. A suspicious passerby called the police to report a break in at the residence. The police officers, including Crowley, who is the subject of dispute responded to the call. All that has been agreed upon is that words were exchanged and Gates was arrested outside his home.

What is also agreed upon, and is the most troubling is that Gates was arrested after he submitted identification indicating he resided in the home. As with every story there are two sides. Officer Crowley, who is white claims Gates was verbally abusive and thus he arrested him for the amorphous crime of being “tumultuous.” Gates claims the officer would not identify himself and was abusive.

Here’s my take on the incident, neither side spoke to one another, and neither side understood the language of one another. President Obama made the germaine and provocative statement about the his incident, specifically that it should translate into a “Teachable Moment.”

In 1994, eight men (the retreat featured only men so as not to confuse the dynamic of men/women relationships), attended a retreat in California. filmmaker/community therapist Lee Mun Wah, created a powerful documentary of this retreat, which dealt with racism from all many points of view, specifically: African American, Asian, Hispanic. The film starts off with defining what it means to be an American to all of these men,. It becomes immediately clear that each of the men, particularly in relationship to the white males in attendance have a different perspective on the term., “American.” The retreat is most powerful to me, and it is the type of dialog we need in this country if we are ever to end this racial divide. It can be found on youtube.com parts 1-5 or 6.

From my perspective, Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gate spoke different languages in that moment in time in the house of Dr. Gates. Gates spoke the language of history, oppression, and racial profiling. Crowley spoke the language of enforcement, protection of citizens, duty, and power. A dialog with one another where we learn to speak the same language will go a long way to become truly One America. I would advocate we use this teachable moment, and hold a series of town hall retreats, which are open and honest like the Color of Fear. .

President Obama is not going to end racism alone. It is up to us to use this moment to move toward the nation for which we aspire tand that is inherent in our Constitituion.. All men are created equal. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”


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