Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Henry Louis Gates Incident Shows There's Still Work to Do

REVISED - July 27, 2009. As more information comes out on this, I find that I have been guilty of the very thing that so many others do: I jumped to judgment on the circumstances of this incident. While I admit that this post was simply my musings on what had happened, I shouldn't have jumepd to certain conclusions below about the woman who called the police and the events surrounding this incident. So while I stated in the original posting that I expected more from the country, I should also expect more from myself.

ORIGINAL POST - Here we are, July 23, 2009, and I'm disappointed - for I expected more from our country.

Nine years into the 21st century, I was optimistic (perhaps naive is a better word) that we had finally turned the page on race relations in this country. With the election of President Obama in November of last year, I thought that perhaps the dream of such leaders as Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois was finally realized. If we could have a black president, perhaps things were in fact getting better, and the differences of our past were at long last being put aside.

And then we heard that distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested under very questionable circumstances, and my optimism was quickly tempered with a big dose of reality. Like millions of Americans, I wasn't there and can only rely on what I hear and read in the news, but it seems to me that misperception played a role in this incident from beginning to end. Someone saw a black man trying to get into a house, and they assumed he was a burglar. The police arrived and ultimately arrested someone who they astonishingly seemed to perceive as another angry black man - not a professor from Harvard, the rightful tenant of the home, and a resident of that particular Cambridge neighborhood.

Truthfully, I can't say that I would have reacted any differently than Professor Gates were I in his situation; if a policeman is standing in my house holding two different forms of identification proving that I live there - and yet I still am not believed - then I'm pretty sure I'd be angry as well. The difference is, sadly, that I don't think I as a white man would be arrested for yelling ("disorderly conduct," as the Cambridge police report reads). Granted, there should be a certain amount of discretion displayed by anyone dealing with a person who wears a gun on their hip, but this incident seems to strike me as absurd.

I'm impressed by what I've heard about how Professor Gates is responding to this: he will use the incident as the impetus to explore the continuing difficulties for blacks in this country. To his credit, he will be putting this issue squarely back in the public spotlight so that we can continue to confront a national relationship that should be all rights be in much better shape than it is at this late date.

I've always admired the work Gates has done during his career, and the series of specials he has put together for PBS exploring the ancestry of famous men and women of black and Asian ancestry (he had just returned from China exploring the past of Yo Yo Ma when this occurred) has been first-rate. Despite the tragedy of what took place on a quiet Massachusetts street, I think he will turn this into another teaching tool - and it is a lesson to which we would all be well-served to pay attention, to consider, and to discuss in a very serious manner.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite: And That's the Way He Was

Broadcast news is much different now than it was when I was a child. Rather than having parents flip to one of the three big networks to watch their evening coverage, we now have access to dozens of 24-hour cable channels filled to the brim with crawlers, split screens, cutaways, and just about every other gimmick and gizmo imaginable. News broadcasts are no longer something that you plan as part of your day - you're surrounded by them, and they're accessible no matter what time of day or night you grab the remote and flip on the set.

News broadcasters are no longer the same, either. Rather than the hardened journalists of decades ago, many of those on television today are entertainers - folks picked because of their humor or their good looks. Yes, many of them cut their teeth working at any of the thousands of local affiliates around the country, but the end result is something much different than I think Edward R. Murrow and his generation would have expected.

With last night's passing of Walter Cronkite, we've lost another link to the era when news was something serious and when journalists were literally tested on the battlefield. Cronkite came up through the Depression and was on the front lines with the troops in North Africa and in Vietnam and was someone who seemed to feel a genuine, emotional investment in the news he was reporting. In watching the old clips, he fought hard to control the overwhelming grief the nation was feeling following the assassination of President Kennedy, and watching his reaction to the Apollo 11 landing on the moon was like watching a kid on Christmas morning.

I don't remember much first-hand of Cronkite's reporting when I was young, but I remember the voice, and I remember the way that everything seemed to come to a stop while people listened - my father sitting in his chair in front of the television, and my grandparents making sure that dinner was finished and everything was cleaned up in time to catch the news. It just doesn't seem that way anymore with the news, and for that I think the passing of Cronkite is a loss for everyone.

I hope that broadcast journalists everywhere will take time over the next few days to remember his impact on their profession and to express a bit of gratitude for his hard work and efforts to build trustworthiness with the viewers. He was a pioneer, and they would do well to remember all he did and all he meant to the viewers.

News has changed, yes, but everyone should recall Walter Cronkite and his style of news and remember how that's the way it was.

Monday, July 06, 2009

By Looking Away, Are We Robbing Someone of Their Legacy?

By not looking someone in the eye as you walk by them, or by turning away from someone in an uncomfortable situation, what is your action doing to that person?

Could you, in fact, be robbing them of their humanness – of their identity and their place in the world?

I’ve been wondering about that question ever since A. and I toured the Holocaust Museum earlier today (her first visit, my second), and it came about as the result of something I noticed while walking through the exhibition halls. In the areas where the displays consisted of photos of large groups of people, old video footage, artifacts, and mementoes of that period in history, everyone seemed to be giving their undivided attention to what they were seeing. By and large, the lines moved slowly through the areas where the victims were not taken as individuals, but as part of the larger group of those so tragically eliminated by Hitler’s regime.

In other rooms of the museum, though – rooms filled with individual photos of families and folks enjoying happier times in life – it seemed visitors were jetting through as quickly as possible. I didn’t see anyone take the time as I did to look at the pictures of brothers and sisters dressed in their finery for Shabbat services or the families enjoying a vacation in the mountains. No one was pausing to consider the photos of the old Zayde – the grandfather – sitting on the front porch of his home, or of the children gathering for an afternoon of fun in the town square, or of the little girl sitting on her bed staring innocently into the lens of the camera. In short, no one was stopping to take a glimpse into the lives that were interrupted and in many instances cut short – the lives of the boys and girls who never had the chance to experience life beyond their childhood, and the lives of the elderly who had stolen from them the opportunity to pass on their wisdom, their knowledge, and their heritage to younger generations.

Is it enough for the visitors who rushed through these areas to consider the Holocaust – indeed, all such horrific periods in human history – in broad, general terms, rather than really delving into the underlying collection of stories making up the history of the Jewish people? Do they not want to look deeper, preferring to keep things in a general, “read about it in my history book” sort of summary?

Or do they move by because they are afraid to look more carefully into the eyes and the faces of those who have suffered and who continue to suffer to this day, afraid to move beyond what they’ve been told into a much more emotional realm? If you look into the faces of those men and women, the young and old, in those photographs, you are stepping through a doorway into their lives, their loves, and their familial joys. In essence, you are putting a human face on a situation that many today only know through books and movies. But to look away, to not see what was taken from the world, are the voices of the past being robbed of a bit of their legacy – of their humanness?

Are they afraid to look because they know that once they see the problem – once they see the difficulties of the past and the challenges of today – they will be compelled to act, and action makes them uncomfortable?

I saw one other thing at the museum that really made me think even more about these questions. When first entering the exhibit, everyone has the opportunity to take an identification card – a little booklet that tells the story of a single victim or survivor of the Holocaust, from their childhood to the end of their lives. Mine is sitting on my desk in front of me (the story of Welek Luksenburg of Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland) as I write this, but I saw several folks open them, give them a cursory glance, and then throw them in the closest trash can as they headed through the exit.

Do they not care, or do they simply not want to know?