The Rashomon Effect was a fixture of 70’s sitcoms, recently revived as life imitating art in the current distraction de jour, the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. v. Cambridge Police Dept. debacle. Inspired by the Kurosawa film of varying, often opposing memories of the same seminal event, it admonishes of the innate fallibility of human memory and perspective. This key insight into the human condition underlies the reality, and should mitigate the hype surrounding this latest iteration of the tired-but-true cultural trope: We really haven’t come that far in race relations since the Civil Rights era.
No one knows what really happened on that New England July afternoon, including the parties to the conflict. Intentions count and misperceptions matter in assessing the event after the fact, important in a final analysis beyond words and acts. The Boston area police, with a rich history of racial philistinism, probably could have defused the moment without running Gates through a TMZ-ready perpwalk photo. And the esteemed academic could have better indulged the caution of law enforcement through another sitcom-worthy misunderstanding, refraining from levels of umbrage that brought the arresting officer’s mother into the mix.
Our Commander-in-Change, the most notable regent of racial concerns by virtue of birth, life experience and political persona, waded into the unforgiving rapids with an uncharacteristically clumsy offhand comment to the press. With a spin to put a major league curveball to shame, Obama invited Officer Crowley and Gates for beer-and-bro therapy in the Oval. And while a nice gesture, focus-group assured to resonate with the mythical everyman living in a little-known hamlet at the precise, GPS-determined center of the Continental U.S., this catharsis-op offers little to assuage the nuanced, trying and deep-rooted issues of race that remain unresolved in this country.
Candidate Obama had it right in March of 2008. While fending off the legions of Limbaugh on the one hand and the grandstanding ego of his former pastor on the other, Obama’s speech on race captured the complexity of its current state, the inequities that persist and the profound disconnect that perpetuates a de facto segregation in America. President Obama should reclaim an appreciation for the subtlety of the challenge and commit to an honest confrontation with the problem that Candidate Obama bravely described. A beer and a stilted bear hug, while both refreshing and affirming, does little but further obscure and subsume a more productive path beneath a concession to stagecraft for the media-cycle.
There are still ugly, awful attitudes and actors out there, and recidivistic racism that is both institutional and personal. Solutions will not be found on the bar stool, in the interracial dialogue seminar or even amidst a blue-ribbon Presidential commission on the future of race relations (especially on such a commission). Change on this third rail of culture and politics will be messy, feelings will be hurt, outrage expressed and coarse words uttered before real reconciliation and resolution is reached. Just ask the folks in South Africa, nakedly rolling through the thorns and thistles of their painful past in the hopes of finding a new normal.
In the compendium of wisdom entitled Pirke Avot/Ethics of The Fathers, axioms of wisdom seemingly fortune-cookie ready in concision and poignancy (especially with the Jewish penchant for Chinese cuisine), the rabbis taught: Every argument for the sake of heaven will endure. And while Jews clearly possess an ethnic imperative to argue, often whether the discussion warrants it or not (witness the philosophical disputations at an outdoor market in Jerusalem while buying a grapefruit), the tradition teaches the inevitability of conflict when seeking to confront life’s tough, intractable but hopefully remediable trials. The intention of the parties, the importance of the issue and a commitment to a constructive approach distinguishes true change from trite lip service.