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The Gates arrest and the “national conversation on race”
Tuesday, July 28, 2009 : The controversy stemming from the arrest of prominent African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home on July 16 has dominated the media for a week. It has afforded another opportunity to pose race as the decisive social division and to obscure basic class realities, including the unprecedented assault on the living conditions of the working class being carried out by the Obama administration.
The details of the case, which have been endlessly parsed by the media, are by now well known. As a legal matter, Gates should not have been arrested. But far more revealing is the utilization of this incident to promote what President Barack Obama, whose unfortunate intervention in the matter catapulted it to the top of the news, refers to as a “teachable moment” on race. The media, Obama, and other politicians have used the controversy surrounding the Gates arrest—which they themselves inflated into a major story—to argue once again that race is the one and only social division in contemporary America that really counts. The incident, they contend, demonstrates that the nation has not moved beyond its racial past, in spite of the election of the first African American president. They insist that what is needed, and what the Gates arrest might initiate, is a new “national conversation on race.” This extraordinarily pompous formulation, implying that the nation is in the midst of some great intellectual discussion, is nonsense. No such conversation is taking place, on race or any other matter. The “national conversation,” such as it is, raises the concept of race to an independent social category, outside and apart from class and the very economic structure of society—a viewpoint promoted for decades by layers of the academic elite, for whom race is a fixation. The proposition that such a bankrupt perspective can provide the basis for serious intellectual discussion only demonstrates the astounding retrogression in American social thought over the past few decades. Read More