Sunday, August 2, 2009

Let's Talk About Beer

Frank Rich writes today about the Beer Summit, President Obama, Sgt. Crowley, Prof. Gates, and Vice President Biden having some beers together at the White House. I agree with Rich, as I usually do. His main point is that powerful white people can't deal with the fact that this country is becoming increasingly diverse. Right.

But reading it, I realized I had read a great deal of commentary about the "Beer Summit," including some obnoxious defenses of Crowley from some right-wingers on various blog boards. What I hadn't done was read an account of the event itself. So I found the NY Times's live-blogging record of the event. The best quote of the day was from Gates:
“We hit it off right from the very beginning,” Professor Gates said. Laughing, he added, “When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy.”
Gates also looked to the future:

“I said we both had been cast as characters in other peoples’ narratives that we couldn’t control,” Professor Gates said. “If we take control of our own stories, we can take control of narrative.”
I feel an odd sense of relief reading that, because it's one of the only times in my life that an idea vaguely reminiscent of postmodern literary theory may actually prove to be useful. Gates puts it well, but he doesn't really sound like much of an elitist, Harvard professor when he says it. It's very helpful that he's right.

What would that narrative look like? It's not that hard to figure out, and Gates again explained it well:
“Through an accident of fate this guy and I are linked together,” he said, “and the question is how can he help end racial profiling and how can I help members of my community be sensitive to the concerns of the police? If we can do that, then James Crowley and I will have taken control of our lives and our peculiar experience together and move it out of a Tom Wolfe novel and into a positive impact.”
This began as a dispute, two men diametrically opposed, even violently opposed. We have heard a great deal of noise and angst and inflammatory rhetoric and denunciations of the other side (by both sides). All of that obscures a larger truth: both sides really do ultimately want the same thing. Cops, at their best, want to keep society safe. African-Americans, at their best, want to be safe.

The noise also obscures the fact that the two most powerful men involved in this drama - Gates and Obama - are African-American. This ended peacefully, almost comically. Those facts - that the powerful, elite men are black, and that it ended well - are indications of something good: there has been a great deal of progress on this front. The fact that it was a controversy at all is a positive sign, because it means that people are worried. The white cop really, really does not want to be seen as a racist. That's a good thing. The black man who was arrested was released quickly. That's a good thing. The present is painful because the past is painful. But the present is less painful than the past, and the future will be better because of the present.

But we are already in the future. The arrest took place on July 16, which is now last month. The narrative has already changed.

Naturally, there has been all kinds of discussion about what kind of beer each of them had, and the symbolism of those choices. Ta-Nehisi Coates linked to James Fallows, who linked to another post on The Atlantic Wire, which linked to an article in Slate that examined the history of beer in presidential politics.

None of which had anything to do with racial profiling.

I'm not sure if Obama intended this, but inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House had the great effect of shifting the conversation. Is it just me, or are many people looking for an excuse to talk about beer rather than racial profiling or elitist Harvard professors? Not everybody. Frank Herbert, to his eternal credit, does not let go of these topics. Talking about the beer rather is one way to talk around the history of racial profiling, rather than addressing it directly. But it's also a way to talk about what they Gates and Crowley have in common. At the very least, they both had a beer with the President and Vice President of the United States.

I'm not a big beer drinker, but I have learned a huge amount about it from my best friend from high school, who brews an incredible range of beers at a brewpub in Michigan. One thing I have learned is that there is a huge amount of - oh yeah, I'm going to use this word - diversity in beers, even more so today, with the proliferation of brew pubs and microbrews. Which diversity is appreciated by many, many Americans. Don't think I need to push that line of analysis much farther.

One fact that has been totally overlooked in this brouhaha is that there was a very significant development in this area - much, much more important than what happened in Boston - out here in LA recently. The LAPD had been operating under a consent decree, imposed by a Federal judge, which required the department to reform a number of its practices. The decree was recently lifted, because the judge decided that the LAPD had, in fact, changed for the better. It's not entirely gone; there is still some supervision, particularly on the issue of racial profiling. The ACLU is not completely convinced. But this is clear and concrete evidence that, in the country's second-largest city, the future has begun to arrive. Even without beer.

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