In his excellent book, Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns makes the point that forgiveness means reconciliation, and it’s impossible to be reconciled with someone who has not repented and asked for forgiveness. Since no party has yet admitted they were wrong, I am not sure what Obama’s beer party on Thursday afternoon is going to accomplish.
It’s become clearer each day that Henry Louis Gates sinned against Officer Crowley. The 911 caller was not practicing racial profiling. She did not mention the race of the suspects, and when asked said that she thought perhaps that one might be Hispanic but she didn’t know. Neither was Officer Crowley. According to a black man and what appeared to be a biracial woman on Cambridge’s police force, Crowley did his job well and the only person who seemed concerned about race was Gates.
It’s also obvious that President Obama sinned against Crowley and the Cambridge police department when he extemporaneously said that they had “acted stupidly.” His later attempt to say that his remarks weren’t “calibrated” properly reveals once again how silly we sound when try to avoid blame for something we did (“misremembered”, anyone?).
Wouldn’t it be refreshing—and wouldn’t it be the first step toward genuine healing—if Gates, Obama, and even Crowley (if he sinned against Gates in ways that have not yet been substantiated) repented of whatever way they had wronged the other and asked for forgiveness? Their reconciliation would become an enduring symbol and catalyst for the racial reconciliation which everyone says we need in this country. I’d drink to that. [Dear Cornerstone board member, this last sentence is a metaphor and is something I’d never do, even if Jesus asked me to join a toast for the happy reconciliation of the races].
I have a couple of outstanding questions:
1. I believe that racial profiling is a problem that requires discussion with the goal of fixing, but doesn’t Gates’ claim in this instance cheapen our perception of the problem? If I was a black man, I would be angry with Gates for discounting my genuine experience of racial profiling with his apparently overly-sensitive reaction. If what happened to Gates constitutes racial profiling, then the easy solution to this “problem” is to just get over it.
2. As a white man (and I know I’m white, as Stephen Colbert would say, because I buy my shirts from L. L. Bean), I would be receptive to Gates saying that he over-reacted in this instance, but he did so in part because of his and his community’s past experiences. Just because the white officer may be cleared in this instance does not mean that white people bear no responsibility for creating a culture in which Gates over-reacted. It wasn’t that long ago that we treated black people like animals, which is far worse than anything Gates said to Crowley. I don’t know the right mechanism for this—whether through government, church, or individuals—but have white people apologized to black folks for the fifties and sixties (or worse, slavery)? If repentance is the first step to reconciliation, then this is something we must do (and given the appropriate venue, I don’t know any white people who wouldn’t eagerly do this).
3. On The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, David Brooks observed that the incident between Gates and Crowley may have been as much about class as race. A black upper class friend-of-the-President Harvard professor may have been annoyed that a middle class white cop was asking for his I.D. in his own home. Perhaps Gates was tired from his trip, perhaps he didn’t know that his home had been broken into while he was gone, and perhaps he didn’t consider that he himself had just forced entry, but for whatever reason he chose to take the officer’s questions personally. Regardless, this “teachable moment” must begin with repentance—from all sides who have sinned. Otherwise it will teach us the wrong kind of lesson.
Editorial note: I have asked my new colleague, Royce Evans, to keep me honest by reading this post and responding from his black perspective.