If there’s one question that our country seems to be raising repeatedly, it’s how to look at issues, both with respect to our personal perspectives and experiences and with respect for others’ perspectives and experiences. How to validate the import of one’s own perspective but not be limited by it when contemplating a broader, more diverse community with myriad views and needs, now that’s a complicated agenda. It’s also a worthwhile one. And I think that when we answered the question of whether this country was ready to elect an African American as President in the affirmative, we opened ourselves to this kind of collective self-reflection. That, too, is a worthwhile thing.
In that light, it’s not surprising that so many responses have been registered in the wake of Henry Louis Gates’ arrest in his Cambridge home this month. The short version—with room to dispute some specific details about how the two parties behaved—is that a prominent Harvard professor returned from a trip without his house keys and was seen by a neighbor “breaking in.” Neighbor called police, and in turn—here’s where the who-behaved-how becomes fuzzy—the police arrested Gates (not for breaking into his own house but for his conduct when they arrived). Now, a very simplistic analysis could go like this: race trumps class when police are involved. But of course, it’s more complicated than that.
Obviously, even with President Obama at the helm, the issue of how race plays out has not been suddenly pulled from current problems and relegated to the “already handled” file to be shelved in the annals of history.
On the Nation site, Melissa Harris-Lacewell wrote a piece, “Skip Gates and the Post-Racial Project,” about Gates’ relationship to black studies intellectually and culturally and often apolitically, and how this informed his response to his own arrest. Of the arrest, she writes, “But Gates seems genuinely surprised and deeply hurt. His sense of violation and humiliation evokes great empathy, but also some incredulity about his astonishment with racial bias in the criminal justice system.”
Many others were, at some level, unsurprised, not by the specifics, but by the potentiality of this kind of event taking place. Just two weeks earlier, a group of children in Philadelphia were barred from a swimming pool because of their race. The racism was shocking largely because it was so blatant, as if etiquette surrounding race has supposedly changed and this private swim club simply hadn’t gotten the message. While we may all wish that this was an exceptional incident in 2009, we know it’s probably not. Last week, I interviewed psychologist Abbie Goldberg, whose first book, Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle, is forthcoming in September, in which she finds 1) that children of gay and lesbian parents do just fine and 2) that how easy being a nontraditional family is for its members has almost everything to do with the acceptance level of the community they find themselves in. In other words, if you live in a community that’s diverse in terms of sexual orientation, where your child isn’t the only one in the class with two moms or dads, it’s much easier for everyone in the family than if you have to answer questions like which (of the two moms) is the "real" mom all the time, or have your community assume that the two women holding a child’s hand are mother and aunt rather than mother and mother. Goldberg’s in the midst of a study about the transition to parenthood for adoptive parents, and she says the same principle holds true for families adopting across racial lines: “One family was about to move because their Chinese daughter was at the mall when another mother yanked her toddler away from reaching out to her daughter, saying, ‘Don’t touch the Chink.’”
Perhaps, being on the “inside,” by definition, assumes effort is required to refuse the temptation to ignore what it’s like to be an outsider. This was what was so insulting about the way Republicans relentlessly blasted Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for her “wise Latina” quote, taken woefully out of context from a 2001 speech: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.” It’s not rocket science to question whether a group of white men—and just two women, ever—hold the more balanced perspectives for true justice throughout our nation. The law, while an objective entity, certainly has room for interpretation; that’s why the legal system has been, at times, so critical for shepherding civil rights from idea or ideal to reality.
Frances Kissling wrote a piece recently for Salon, “What’s Wrong with the New Pro-Lifers,” in which she writes, “Those opposed to abortion suffer from a cavalier attitude toward the woman who carries the fetus.” Kissling argues that while those supporting and opposing abortion rights agree that decreasing the number of abortions is one goal, the anti-abortion movement disregards abortion as ever being necessary. She writes, “You could only say this if you completely minimize or reject that women's actions and identity are significant moments of moral agency or of the woman's personhood.” As the fetus took up personhood, the idea was that women should cede theirs, according to Kissling. In the new framework of the anti-abortion movement, adoption is similarly considered another way to avoid abortions, one that might be somewhat inconvenient for a few months, yet remains an inherently greater choice than abortion, and not one that exacts a significant personal toll upon the woman carrying that pregnancy. As an adoptive mother—a very grateful adoptive mother, who feels blessed beyond belief—I have to strenuously object to the notion that adoption—for the mother giving birth—is necessarily inconsequential. For the vast majority of women, giving birth is a very big deal, a life changing experience, regardless of whether she raises the child, and regardless of whether she wants it to feel like a life changing event. Kissling believes this lack of compassion for women as moral agents is why this “new” group of anti-abortion activists is no closer to finding common ground with supporters of abortion than the ones before them. She writes, “The challenge to the new anti-abortionists is whether or not women's perspectives on the meaning of pregnancy and motherhood will be considered in their project, or whether their ethical frame will remain focused on the fetus… While they set about reducing the number of abortions–again, not the "need" for abortion–will the women whose lives they are affecting ever be seen as moral agents?” Ever since the fetus became the paramount concern to those opposed to—and even to those supporting abortion rights—at the peril of women’s rights, the conversation about how women might feel about becoming pregnant and affirming their right to decide—for whatever reasons—seems to have stopped. At the same time, access to contraceptives, comprehensive sex education, and public support for poor women trying to raise families has all fallen away drastically.
Harris-Lacewell writes that her personal upset over Gates’ arrest was not so much about a black man or a Harvard professor being singled out in this way. She writes, “My distress is squarely rooted in feeling that I watched the police handcuff American possibility.” Eugene Robinson, in the Washington Post, wrote the main story of Obama's address to the NAACP last week was the visuals, the African American President speaking at the organization's convention. During his address, President Obama said, “"I do think it is important for the African American community, in its diversity, to stay true to one core aspect of the African American experience, which is we know what it's like to be on the outside. If we ever lose that, then I think we're in trouble. Then I think we've lost our way." Both statements are a call to action. The chance we have—here, now, with this President and during these times—is to strive for each of us—feeling in some way, at some moment, on the outside—to remember our position isn’t the only one. I think it all comes down to figuring out how, if not to walk in another's shoes, to at least imagine trying them on before judging their stride.