What Can We Make of the Beer Summit?

Well, the much anticipated meeting between the President, Dr. Gates, and Sgt. Crowley is over. We saw images of the three men along with Vice-President Biden carrying on like chummy pals, and so the question remains: now what? I think President Obama was right to downplay the importance of the so-called “beer summit”. After all, it was more a recovery effort of Mr. Obama’s after he interjected himself into the story with his remarks that the Massachusetts police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates.

First, a word about the President’s comments. I don’t completely fault him for what he said. We tend to over-scrutinize every word a president says as if his every utterance has been planned and rehearsed and therefore infallible. Obama was responding to an off-the-cuff question with a very off-the-cuff answer. Granted, it wasn’t a very helpful answer. He pitched unfair aspersions upon the arresting officer which he would days later “recalibrate.” But be that as it may, he also answered as an African-American, obviously seeing things through a long lens of racial history in America. It’s very much understandable and forgivable, yes. But perhaps Obama now knows a bit more keenly that as President of the United States, he carries a most certain gravitas, especially as an African American president speaking on issues of race.

Now I realize that what I say here comes from my worldview as a white guy. At the same time, I have dear friends from many different races and proudly pastor a multicultural, multiracial congregation. I’ve learned from my experiences that people from different races and cultures view the world from a wide range of varying angles. Who’s to say which angle is the most accurate?

Just to give you an example, the day after the Gates arrest and the President’s ensuing commentary on it, I called one of my African American friends to ask him what he thought of all this. His first words were, “Oh man… You’d have to ask that question!” Obviously, the incident stirred up a lot within him.

I was amazed and dismayed– and maybe I shouldn’t have been– to find him questioning not Gates’ behavior nor the President’s remarks but the police officer. His gut told him, “This was racial profiling.”

Then I quoted the police report which detailed Gates’ outlandish behavior and the reasons for his arrest.

My friend held the report in suspicion.

Then I said, “But Crowley has an exemplary record as a veteran police officer. He’s even taught racial sensitivity courses. He has no record of racism in his past.”

To that, my friend replied, “But past behavior isn’t necessarily an indicator of future behavior.”

Then I blurted out, “What?? So you’re saying the officer is guilty simply because the charge of racism has been made?? So the charge is greater than any other evidence??”

I have to admit that beyond that I can’t remember the details from the rest of our conversation. My friend may have had some other good things to say, but my mind shut down after that. We talked some more and agreed to keep watching to see what would happen. By the way, my friend and I rarely agree on much of anything, however we really respect and learn from each other.

Afterwards, a day or so before the White House beer summit, my friend and I talked again. We saw things a little differently than before. While we still didn’t agree on who was to blame for the incident, we both did see that there was some overreacting from both Gates and Crowley. In other words, it was a momentary mistake of judgment. I would add that the President also committed a momentary mistake of judgment by the tone of his remarks.

So is that all it was? Was there no racism involved?

After thinking about things, I’m going to throw this idea out there: There was no racism inherent in anyone’s motives or actions. But racism, like a demonic force, stepped in as an outside intruder to make this incident into yet another firestorm to throw our country into a debate on racism that quite honestly will never be resolved.

So was there any healing balm to be found in the White House beer summit? Perhaps. It was a nice symbolic gesture. Frankly, that’s all it was. Both Gates and Crowley walked away still not agreeing on who was right and wrong. But they both seemed to walk away with a greater respect for the two different worlds in which they live and work. They both want to “move on.”

And that’s probably the best thing for them and for us, too. My African American friend and I drew the same conclusion.

Of course, there is no denying what an incredibly ugly, horrific scar the history of racism has left on America. From the earliest days of slavery in the American colonies to racial segregation and inequalities to the systemic and personal incarnations of racism we find today, that scar still lives and breathes. I truly believe that over time, the scar will will continue to weaken and fade. But I do not think that we will ever find any great coming-to-terms on the debate surrounding racism, i.e. who’s to blame and what are we to do about it.

The debate on racism is what fueled last week’s events, not racism itself.
There is no victor rising from the debate on racism, only casualties. Americans of European and African descent do not see issues of race in the same way, nor may they ever. Thankfully, it’s not necessary for us to agree in order to create racial harmony in the United States or anywhere else in the world. What we do need, however, is mutual respect for the integrity of differeing views. With my African American friend, I can learn to appreciate how and why he sees things as he does, even if I don’t view things the same way, and vice versa.

So, instead of debate, let’s dialogue. Dialogue builds bridges into community with one another. Dialogue might possibly bring new, creative solutions to the lingering issues of racism that the tired out debates could never deliver.
Finally, I’d like to offer a sure, absolute cure to the issues of race, this one from the gospel of Jesus Christ:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. (Galatians 3:26-29, NTL)

If only we would all see, especially those of us who call ourselves Christian,  that God’s promise of Jesus Christ is our healing, our unity, and our life, we would have all the unity we need. And there would be no more need for symbolic beer summits.



Filed under Politics, Race and Culture

11 Responses to What Can We Make of the Beer Summit?

  1. Dr. Tom Cocklereece

    Good article, Chris!

  2. Walt F.

    Good article, Chris.
    This incident has been blown way out of proportion. The media jumped onto it with both feet.
    The President was too quick on the trigger with his initial comments.
    The Rose Garden get together should not have turned into a “Dog and Pony” photo op. If a joint meeting was to be held, it should have been between the individuals involved and kept that way.
    But opinions like that are one big reason I have never had any political aspirations. . .

  3. Gary L Lake Dillensnyder, OSL+

    as i see it
    racial profiling runs so deep and wide within our culture
    it runs so deep and wide, in fact, that it is present even when we think it is not
    it is like the cold that hangs on for several days
    and then appears to be gone
    until we find ourselves sucking wind climbing a staircase
    the sniffles and cough had disappeared but the deeper inner presence was still there
    there is no easy answer
    it is so ingrained in our culture that it is improbable that it can be eradicated
    it is embarassing as such
    we would like to think we have moved beyond such a thing
    we would like to believe that a police officer who teaches how not to racially profile could be on that does that very thing
    but then we preach each sunday about being free from the bondage of sin and reconciled to God and to one another
    but the words of Paul continue
    i know the good i want to do
    but i continue to do the wrong i want not to do

  4. Ray McDonald

    I understand I do not know the impact of racism on most blacks in America. I can understand most blacks in America seeing much of life through the glasses of racism. Even our President, who has white and black parents, sees some things through the glasses of racism. I can say I am not a racist but I believe all, white and black, are racists to a degree.
    Having said that I believe too much was made of this event.
    Having said that, I also have a problem with not using congruent terms when dealing with the races.
    We should use congruent terms or that too is a form of racism. If the President is called an African-American – as mentioned he is actually bi-racial – then those you call white should be called European-Americans or the area they have ancestry (not all persons called African-American have African ancestry). Black is to white what African-American is to European-American or Negroid is to Caucasian. Congruent terms would put everyone on the same playing field.
    Since I can see the negative baggage with the scientific term Negroid, I would use either black and white or African-American and European-American, in referring to people, if we must identify a person’s ancestry.

    • Yeah, I hear you, Ray. I know we’ve had this conversation before. Why aren’t the terms congruent? I’m not sure.
      As for me, I call myself an American, or better yet, a follower of Jesus. But, if I had to bring my racial origins into it, I’m with you. I’d prefer to be called a European American and be allowed to do so proudly without being thought of as a racist.
      After all, if we’re going to celebrate multiculturalism, then let’s celebrate all the cultures that make up America, including the European cultures!

  5. Jack Day

    Two of the most important implications of this story to me haven’t yet been much highlighted.
    First, I agree that when we put all the facts we know on the table, it doesn’t look like race was a a factor. But what was a factor was that the police officer and the professor had different expectations of what was appropriate police conduct at that moment. Is it OK or is it not OK to yell at a policeman from your own porch? Many of us have certain expectations about the sanctity of our own homes — and porches — which may not be shared by the police. Any time there are disconnects like that, there will be trouble in the future.
    Second, the Beer Summit was more than a nice gesture. We have had a reigning philosophy that when you disagree with someone, you DON’T talk with them, because if you talk with someone, you’re approving them. This is a different philosophy, that when you disagree with someone, you SHOULD talk with them, because disagreements that involve disrespect and anger become festering sores that make things worse rather than better. At the end of the Beer Summit, we see yes, they continue to disagree, but they can talk, they can respect each other, they don’t have to go out and kill each other and start gathering troops on each side so they can have a war, and in that sense the Beer Summit is a good model for ways that leaders and governments can improve the way they conduct themselves.

    • Jackson, I think time will tell how much worth the Beer Summit really was. Obama called this a teachable moment, and perhaps it will be. I also think this a political move, too. There’s no doubt that Obama’s comments brought this story into the national spotlight, making far much more of it than it deserved. This was not a story of racial profiling. This was a story of mutually insufficient judgment that had the spotlight of racism and the debate of racism thrown onto it.
      I agree that these men modeled what it means for people to come together and talk. I’m still saddened, however, to hear no apologies or remorse coming from anyone involved. Isn’t that part of a legitimate teachable moment??

  6. Julie

    I think the Pres should have kept his mouth shut on this issue. His comments were not needed. I also do not believe that every interaction between 2 people of different races contains an element of racism.

  7. I cannot for the life of me understand why the President of the United States of America has ANY business WHATSOEVER becoming involved in a local police incident!!! And then to bring everyone to the White House to “patch things up?” He must have missed the memo about what his job responsibilities are and are not. One would think he’d be too busy spending the country into oblivion and shoving socialism down the throats of the American people to have time to stir the fires of racism.

  8. Dave Jewell

    Great article Chris! Very well thought out and delivered.

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