The comforting thing about each "national conversation on race" is that the "teachable moment" passes before any serious conversation can get going.
This one ended with a burp. The debate about which brew would best give President Obama Joe Six-Pack cred in his White House beer op with Harvard's town-and-gown antagonists hit the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Had Obama picked a brand evoking an elitist whiff of John Kerry - Stella Artois, perhaps? - we'd have another week of coverage dissecting his biggest political gaffe since rolling a gutter ball at a Pennsylvania bowling alley.
You can't blame Obama if he's perplexed about the recent events. He answers a single, legitimate race-based question at the end of a news conference and is roundly condemned for "stepping on his own message" about health care. It was the noisiest sector of the news media that did much of the stepping. "Health care is bad for ratings," explained one cable anchor, Dylan Ratigan of MSNBC, with refreshing public candor. What a relief, then, to drop dreary debates about the public option and declare a national conversation about black-white fisticuffs. Especially when this particular incident is truly small beer next to the far more traumatic national sea change on race that will keep sowing conflict and anger long after Henry Louis Gates Jr. finishes his proposed documentary on racial profiling.
I'll return to the larger picture, but before the battle of Cambridge fades entirely, let's note that the only crime Obama committed at his news conference was honesty (always impolitic in Washington). He conceded he did not know "all the facts" and so wisely resisted passing judgment on "what role race played" in the incident. He said, accurately, that "separate and apart from this incident" there is "a long history" of "African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately." And, yes, the police did act "stupidly in arresting" - not to mention shackling - "somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home." If Obama had really wanted to go for the jugular, he might have added that the police may have overstepped the law as well.
The president's subsequent apology for his news-conference answer was superfluous. But he might have used it to acknowledge the one exemplary player in Cambridge, Lucia Whalen, the white passer-by whose good deed of a 911 phone call did not go unpunished. In his police report, Sgt. James Crowley portrayed Whalen as a racial profiler by saying she had told him that the two men at Gates's door were black. She denied it, and the audio tape of her original call backs her up: she had told the dispatcher (only when asked) that one of the men "looked kind of Hispanic" and that she couldn't see the other. Yet Whalen, who was pilloried as a racist because of Crowley's report, received no apology from him and no White House invitation from Obama. That's stupid behavior by both men.
It's also stupid to look at Harvard as a paradigm of anything, race included. If there was a teachable moment in this incident, it could be found in how some powerful white people well beyond Cambridge responded to it. That reaction is merely the latest example of how the inexorable transformation of America into a white-minority country in some 30 years - by 2042 in the latest Census Bureau estimate - is causing serious jitters, if not panic, in some white establishments.
Ground zero for this hysteria is Fox News, where Brit Hume last Sunday lamented how insulting it is "to be labeled a racist" in "contemporary" America. "That fact has placed into the hands of certain people a weapon," he said, as he condemned Gates for hurling that weapon at a police officer. Gates may well have been unjust - we don't know that Crowley is a racist - but the professor was provoked by being confronted like a suspect in the privacy of his own home.
What about those far more famous leaders in Hume's own camp who insistently cry "racist" - and in public forums - without any credible justification whatsoever? These are the "certain people" Hume conspicuously didn't mention. They include Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, both of whom labeled Sonia Sotomayor a racist. Their ranks were joined last week by Glenn Beck, who on Fox News inexplicably labeled Obama a racist with "a deep-seated hatred for white people," presumably including his own mother.
What provokes their angry and nonsensical cries of racism is sheer desperation: an entire country is changing faster than these white guys bargained for. We've been reminded repeatedly during Gatesgate that Cambridge's mayor is a black lesbian. But a more representative window into the country's transition might be that Dallas County, Tex., elected a Latina lesbian sheriff in 2004 (and re-elected her last year) and that the three serious candidates for mayor of Houston this fall include a black man and a white lesbian.
Even Texas may be tinting blue, and as goes Texas, so will all but the dwindling rural minority of the Electoral College. Last month the Census Bureau released a new analysis of the 2008 presidential election results finding that increases among minority voters accounted for virtually all the five million additional votes cast in comparison to 2004. Black women had a higher turnout rate than any other group, and young blacks turned out at a higher rate than young whites.
It's against this backdrop that 11 Republican congressmen have now signed on to a bill requiring that presidential candidates produce their birth certificates. This bizarre "birther" movement, out to prove that Obama is not a naturally born citizen, first gained notice in the summer of 2008 when it was being advanced by the author Jerome Corsi, a leader of the Swift boat assault on Kerry. That it revved up again as Gatesgate boiled over and Sotomayor sped toward Senate confirmation is not a coincidence.
Obama's election, far from alleviating paranoia in the white fringe, has only compounded it. There is no purer expression of this animus than to claim that Obama is literally not an American - or, as Sarah Palin would have it, not a "real American." The birth-certificate canard is just the latest version of those campaign-year attempts to strip Obama of his American identity with faux controversies over flag pins, the Pledge of Allegiance and his middle name. Last summer, Cokie Roberts of ABC News even faulted him for taking a vacation in his home state of Hawaii, which she described as a "foreign, exotic place," in contrast to her proposed choice of Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the real America of Dixie.
Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter have condemned the birther brigades and likened them to "the truthers" who accused the Bush administration of engineering the 9/11 attacks. But those conspiracy theorists couldn't find 11 congressmen willing to sponsor a bill supporting their claims. Even Liz Cheney has publicly refused to dispute the libels on Obama's citizenship.
One of the loudest birther enablers is not at Fox but CNN: Lou Dobbs, who was heretofore best known for trying to link immigrants, especially Hispanics, to civic havoc. Dobbs is one-stop shopping for the excesses of this seismic period of racial transition. And he is following a traditional, if toxic, American playbook. The escalating white fear of newly empowered ethnic groups and blacks is a naked replay of more than a century ago, when large waves of immigration and the northern migration of emancipated blacks, coupled with a tumultuous modernization of the American work force, unleashed a similar storm of racial and nativist panic.
As Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and Helene Cooper of The Times have pointed out, a lot of today's variation on the theme is class-oriented. Some whites habituated to a monopoly on the upper reaches of American power just can't adjust to the reality that Obama, Sotomayor, Oprah Winfrey and countless others are now at the very pinnacle, and that they might sometimes side with each other just as their white counterparts do. Threatened white elites try to mask their own anxieties by patronizingly adopting working-class whites as their pet political surrogates - Joe the Plumber, New Haven firemen, a Cambridge police officer. Call it Village People populism.
Sometimes the most revealing expressions of this resentment emerge in juvenile asides - Bill Kristol (on The Weekly Standard's blog) ridiculing Gates for writing a flowery travel magazine article about his privileged vacation home of Martha's Vineyard, or Heather MacDonald (in National Review) mocking Gates as a "limousine liberal" for his supposedly hypocritical admission that he has a "regular car service" and a "regular driver" to fetch him at the airport. Who does Henry Louis Gates Jr. think he is, William F. Buckley Jr.?
The one lesson that everyone took away from the latest "national conversation about race" is the same one we've taken away from every other "national conversation" in the past couple of years. America has not transcended race. America is not postracial. So we can all say that again. But it must also be said that we're just at the start of what may be a 30-year struggle. Beer won't cool the fury of those who can't accept the reality that America's racial profile will no longer reflect their own.