By David Kairys, a law professor at Temple University, is the author of Philadelphia Freedom, Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer. Kairys' other books include a leading progressive critique of the law, The Politics of Law. Kairys' post also appeared as an oped in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.
In our polarized fascination with Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates, there's been a lot of talk about teachable moments, but little effort to understand how two decent guys doing their jobs and living their lives could have such different perceptions of their encounter.
The central problem is how we think about race or, really, about racism.
The idea that racism is wrong is very new in our culture, history, and law. Before World War II, racial stereotypes were common in everyday life. Racial epithets, slurs, jokes, and put-downs were uneventful ingredients of discussion across ethnic, religious, and class lines. The Supreme Court embraced segregation and slavery, and it approved of the imprisonment of all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast during World War II.
The change in our values reached its peak when legally sanctioned segregation was ended in the 1960s. The immorality and evil of racism became so accepted that even factions of the Ku Klux Klan declared themselves non-racists who just happened to "like white people." In mainstream culture, racism grew to be so socially forbidden that it was just about the worst thing one could be accused of. Labeling a white person racist was to put him or her in the company of lynching, church-bombing, slaveholding monsters. It became common for some to deny that they even notice race.
This has made it very difficult to talk about the obvious reality that when we encounter each other - on the street, in the workplace, or in our homes - we do notice race, and it has meaning for us. This is not wrong or a personal failing, and we won't be able to understand or do anything about race issues if we insist that racism is restricted to villains.