Barack Obama’s ‘beer summit’, as it has come to be known, managed to create real dialogue on the divisive issue of race. It was not just deft, it was honest. And for us in India, with all our polarisations of caste and religion, there are some genuine lessons to be learnt.
For those who missed the story — it all began when a celebrated Harvard Professor, Henry ‘Skip’ Gates, found himself locked out of his own house. The key wouldn’t work quite as smoothly as it should have and so he began wrestling with the doorknob. An alert neighbour mistook it for a break-in and dialled ‘911’. The rest, as they say, was headline news. When James Crowley, a sergeant with the Cambridge Police, arrived at the house to investigate, he wasn’t convinced that the professor was not an impostor. The Harvard identity card that the irate Professor produced did not have a photograph and so technically was not a proof of residence. The professor was getting angrier and angrier. Arguing with a policeman in America, as everyone knows, spells handcuffs. And so, within minutes of an explosive argument, Gates was arrested on charges of “disorderly conduct”.
This could still have been branded an unfortunate misunderstanding, if it weren’t for one crucial fact. Gates was black, Crowley was white. Interestingly, class intersected with race here in an unusual and unpredictable manner. As one of the most celebrated African American academics in the country, Gates was a personal friend of the President’s. Crowley was your regular, working-class guy who could never inhabit the elite, chi-chi world of Harvard dons. At first, the President — who has often underplayed his own racial identity — weighed in on the side of his friend. The police, he said, “had acted stupidly.” But he was forced to revise his position when the police union in Cambridge paraded Latino and black cops who testified in favour of Crowley’s track record as an officer. The controversy erupted into a fierce national debate. Was Gates a victim of racial profiling? Was Crowley just doing his job or were his actions based on stereotypical assumptions about black people? Had Obama been too impetuous and over-simplistic? The President believed he may have spoken out of turn.
Regretting his choice of words, he invited both Gates and Crowley over for a beer. And so, you had two white guys (Joe Biden joined in) and two black guys caught in a perfect image of symmetry. Neither person, we are told, said sorry. But it was a new beginning and a swift recovery for the President whose initial sweeping remarks had blotted his capacity for complexity.
The ability to admit a mistake remains Obama’s most compelling characteristic. It makes him simultaneously admirable and all-too-human. By contrast, here in India, politics functions on the principle of stubborn spin-doctoring or absolute denial. Think about it. Do you remember any instance where through a raging public debate, a politician took us into confidence and thought aloud, along with us? In an age where media-bashing has become a convenient deflection of all uncomfortable questions, most of our netas would rather blame journalists for manufacturing an entire issue. Instead Obama conceded that if there was media “noise”, he had added a few decibels of his own saying that, “to the extent that my choice of words didn’t illuminate but rather contributed to more media, I think that was unfortunate.”
The other extraordinary thing to have emerged from the controversy is the space for the middle ground. Obama’s abiding contribution to the race debate in his country is that being black is no longer perennially defined by the politics of perennial victimhood. Now think about our public debates on caste, class and minority rights. They suffer from either intellectually stagnant political correctness or utterly repulsive prejudice. They keep people locked into stated positions and offer no dynamism of movement towards the middle.
So, if you criticise Mayawati’s statue-building self-obsession, for example, you will be branded a bigot by one lobby and hailed as a hero by another. Rita Bahuguna’s patently sexist remarks about Mayawati and the larger issue of rape were followed by a tepid, grudging apology. But when BSP goons attacked Bahuguna’s house, the champions of Dalit rights weren’t willing to be unequivocally critical either. All too often as ideologies take opposite positions along enemy lines, truth is the first casualty. In many ways, extremity of thinking keeps people ghettoised and divided.
In this particular controversy, Obama had to eventually concede that perhaps neither man was completely wrong or completely right. “My sense is that you have got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them was able to resolve it the way they wanted to resolve it,” he said.
India may owe its minorities and marginalised centuries of overdue fairness and equality. But perhaps, it’s worth pondering the fact that generalisations about prejudice can keep people locked into clichés they may want to shed. And automatic and presumed victimhood is often the biggest disservice you can do to anyone. I’m not saying that black people are not racially profiled in America. Nor am I saying that Dalits and minorities in India do not suffer from entrenched biases. But there comes a time in the life of a country when a different language needs to be crafted to write a new chapter of history. Obama called this controversy a “teachable moment”. We shouldn’t miss the next opportunity to learn from our own “teachable moments”.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV