Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Constructive Confrontation: The case of Henry Louis Gates

In Africa, Domestic Politics on April 23, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Our times are extremely interesting–in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse. We have so much going on that there is ample opportunity for the likes of Rahm Emmanuel not to let this crisis go to waste. As we have come to chant, when the President came to office he faced two wars, the great recession, a crisis in health financing, climate change and the burden of a dysfunctional financial system among other things. And yet amid all of this, the key issue of our decade may be the ongoing challenge of racial reconciliation. In this grand spectacle, no figure other than the President himself has loomed as large as Henry Louis Gates. In Gates, we have one of the best examples of how ideas and their makers have consequences–in this case for the good.

Not only was Gates in the center of a public drama now known as the beer summit, which I believe was one of the major facilitators of the ethno-racial dimension of the Tea Party movement, but today he has published an op-ed in the New York Times that is only astonishing for the fact of its publication. His confrontation with Officer Crowley has helped to surface residual ethno-political tensions that we now have a chance to engage head-on to expose racially biased misconceptions, while in today’s confrontation with history, we find Gates engaging what must be one of the most contentious topics in the American record, namely responsibility for African slavery, with a balanced and historical view on how the practice developed.

In Gates’ story, there is excess blame to go around for the sins of the peculiar institution. We find the usual deserving suspects implicated, but we also find here a eerie tale of inter-ethic opportunism among Africans themselves. It is said that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, but the reality is often the reverse. The fathers of the tragedy of institutionalized racism that we are only now beginning to extirpate are more numerous than we typically suppose. Similarly in Gates’ example, we see how success is as much a function of creative and courageous mothers and fathers as it is the play of social forces in relational fields. Individuals like Gates can make a difference.

I must say that I did not find much in the argument to be surprising. One would have to hold a kind of caricatured image of the European invader to believe that something like this kind of invidious collaboration did not take place. As the late timing of colonization implies, the capacity of African powers to resist European colonization were not trivial, and entrenched leaders must have seen numerous opportunities to use their would-be colonizers as much as they were used. They were by no means weak. Gates’ argument is fascinating, in part, because of it its tie in to his larger project, part of which can be found on PBS, documenting the genetic roots of the African diaspora so that personal histories might be grounded on a plausible factual basis.What makes this project so exciting is that, in our changed political environment, we can use science to break down racial stereotypes where once we used it to bolster them. Not only do we find that many people who we think of as black (based on the bizarre racial taint theory that we seem to still respect) are of mixed race, but we also now have a chance to openly chart population movements and genetic origins for all of us, whatever our assumed background.

It is intriguing that Gates is helping us to use the truth to set us free, when just yesterday we saw a prominent report of how genetic research can also be portrayed as repressive of Native American rights to embrace a creation myth. The contrast in these cases is striking and can serve as an indicator of the state of two kinds of racial conflicts ongoing in the country. Gates confidently shows us the extent to which scientific truth is now clearly on the side of African Americans, while many of the  Havasupai Indians are deeply suspicious of the abuse of their data. To me, this says that the former case is progressing while the latter needs considerable work. The contradictions and complications of multiculturalism are many and will take long decades to sort through.

I am sure that today’s op-ed will be abused by some white Americans who are looking for exoneration for their ancestors, but that is the last thing the Gates piece intends. Lurking behind the words on the page seems to be an argument in favor of a kind of reparations for slavery program. Gates recognizes that the problem of shared complicity makes the practical dimension of simple transfers of wealth across racial categories deeply problematic, but what he does not swear off is our collective responsibility to address the residual structural dimensions of the traumatic experience of slavery. If we are all in some way responsible for racial injustice, then we are all in some way responsible for moving toward racial redemption. In the end, the “history” in the historical election of 2008 was largely about that.


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