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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Our national Rorschach test

OK, all of you who thought the election of Barack Obama ushered in a "post-racial" period that solved all of our problems, raise your hand. Come on. I know you're out there. Now, go stand in a corner.

The loud and vigorous debate that has erupted here and elsewhere over the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. should put that notion to rest. We have the very real feelings of African-American men who have experienced the humiliation on one side. And the equally aggrieved who feel the Cambridge police acted properly in arresting what they described as a belligerent man.

Personally, I'm on the side of Barack Obama, who revised and extended his initial commentary after seeming to pour gasoline on the flames.
“I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who is in his own home."
That said, I had a conversation yesterday with a Cambridge native -- as liberal as they come I might add -- who knows her hometown inside and out and offered this observation.
"If that had been Harvey Silverglate or Larry Tribe, the cops would have done the same thing. The issue isn't race. It's town-gown."
Silverglate and Tribe are, of course, Harvard Law professors. Like Gates, they apparently share a certain arrogance that comes when you are tenured faculty at a place that likes to think of itself as the world's greatest university.

And Cambridge, unbeknown to many who only know about Harvard, Kennedy accents and snide remarks about liberal boutiques, is a complex place. Working class neighborhoods not all that far from the Brattle Street mansions. The type of class gap that breeds classic town-gown conflict.

It wasn't all that long ago the "other side" of Cambridge had a loud champion in government. One-time Mayor Al Vellucci loved to tug at Harvard's cape. As his obituary noted:
Mr. Vellucci's proposals to turn the Harvard Lampoon building into a public urinal ("Well, that's what it looks like, doesn't it?"), to force Harvard to secede from Massachusetts, and to convert Harvard Yard into a parking lot for public buses kept his name in the headlines for years.
It's an important point to remember as both sides spin furiously. Friends and co-workers say Sgt. James Crowley really doesn't have a racist bone in his body. He was simply acting as all cops are trained to do, and had the extra satisfaction of getting the upper hand over a haughty Harvard professor.

Never having had to endure the real and humiliating slights inflicted on African-American men because of irrational fear (or outright racism) of others, I can't say I have walked a mile in their shoes.

But I do know that the class divide in the United States is a big one, made even bigger over the Bush years. The antipathy for the upper classes is huge -- witness the near universal joy at Bernie Madoff's 150-year prison term. The Brattle Street neighborhood where this took place is probably home to a fair number of Madoff's victims.

While I think Obama's only mistake in weighing in on the Gates affair was to step on his message about health care, I actually applaud him for offering his opinion. As an African-American man who lived in Cambridge for four years he speaks from personal experience.

And ultimately his comment -- and the whole sad affair -- will be one of the healthiest things America can do. We are not living in a post-racial society. The inflammatory comments of a Chicago preacher are not the same as the heartfelt grievance of a "middle-aged man who uses a cane, who is in his own home."

And the pain of a working class Cambridge native who labored to save the life of a basketball hero is a lot more real than those of radio loudmouths who live in Palm Beach mansions and who make their fortunes stirring the pot of hatred.

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Blogger Readwriteblue said...

The heat that this topic has brought to the issues of race, class and equal justic under law has generated more smoke than light. It is hard to avoid the old worn out arguements. Emotions get in the way of good judgement.

July 24, 2009 8:07 AM  
Blogger Chris Rich said...

Jeeze OL, it looks like the entire Hairoil commentariat migrated over here with lots of Patrolmans Union types going nuts.

What is wrong with America? Have we devolved into a culture of brittle chest pounding narcissists who can't lose gracefully when they get carried away and pull some bonehead stunt?

I'm no fan of Harvard but I like shrill Limbaugh minions even less.

July 24, 2009 9:55 AM  
Blogger karenklinger said...

FYI: Ware Street, where Gates lives, is not in the Brattle Street neighborhood. It is a few blocks east of Harvard Square and about a dozen blocks from Central Square. It is two blocks from Quincy Street, where the Harvard faculty club and the Fogg Museum are located.

July 24, 2009 2:43 PM  
Blogger Outraged Liberal said...

Karen, Thanks for the geography correction. From Tv shots, the neighborhood looks more Brattle Street than Central Square :-)

July 24, 2009 3:53 PM  
Blogger Chris Rich said...

Ah OL, I see you've been ditzed. Welcome to Cambridge where tiny fussy amendments of a narrative arc take priority over the essential story. They are a people who think in footnotes.

Some similarly fussy creature amended things a bit too much by deciding a guy with a cane and a limo driver was secretly the day time cat burgler of Ware street and gave 911 a jingle on her cell rolling the whole ball where it is today.

Yeah I know where ware is too but it didn't seem like a significant detail. Lets see who knows the fate of the Clark Telescope Factory sort of thing.

July 24, 2009 8:42 PM  

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