Thursday, July 30, 2009
What Do Henry Louis Gates and OJ Simpson Have In Common?
Not much at all, except for the same dreadful and superficial media coverage about race - then and now.
Henry Louis Gates was recently the center of a story when the renowned African-American Harvard professor was arrested trying to enter his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As he was trying to push open a sticky front door, he asked his cab driver (also African-American) to help.
A local woman saw two men she assumed were trying to break into the house. She called the police. Gates and a local officer exchanged words and the professor was arrested. Charges were later dropped, but President Obama observed that the police acted "stupidly."
After making that remark, based on a history of terrible relations between black people and police, the chattering classes pounced. Gates was accused of over-reacting. The police officer was accused of racial insensitivity and the President of playing racial politics by defending Gates without knowing all the facts.
I didn't read or see a lot of explanatory journalism that might have pointed to the racial history of Americans - black and white which could explain why Gates acted the way he did, or why Obama instinctively assumed that the police officer acted the way he did.
It reminded me of OJ Simpson, the African-American former football player and bit actor who was acquitted of the murder of his white wife and her white friend in 1995. The trial was broadcast live and had then - and still has all of the most compelling aspects of tabloid journalism in America: sports, murder, sex, race and celebrity.
It couldn't be beat for attracting eyeballs and selling newspapers. CNN in fact, earned much of its reputation by its continual and sensational coverage of the story.
At the time, opinion about Simpson's guilt seemed evenly divided on racial lines: many white people including white journalists and commentators were openly dismissive of the trial and Simpson's defense attorney, Johnnie Cochrane ("If the glove don't fit, you must acquit," were among his more memorable lines in the summation to the jury).
In the end it worked and Simpson walked out of court a free man. That evening on the nightly tv news programs, shots of cheering black people were contrasted with scenes of white people shaking their heads in astonishment.
The Gates arrest and Obama's subsequent comment have rekindled the same kind of divisive reactions among whites and African-Americans. Journalists still reflect that divide (with some exceptions), even in a supposedly post-racial Obamian America.
Although some media have tried a more sensitive approach, it's been drowned out as race in America (and many other places as well) remains a powerful signifier of the "two solitudes." One of the unintended consequences of the event is how President Obama has become involved, much to the delight of his political adversaries. His solid political instincts now appear to be less than sure, at least in the short term.
When I came to NPR in 1997, I was hired by Delano Lewis, the president of NPR, and an African-American. He told me that at NPR, as in the rest of America, "race is a burden that is hard to put down."
Del's words of warning came back to me as I watched the events in Cambridge and Washington unfold over the past week.