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Lott: Gates incident shows why racial debate is hard
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The intense media blitz and debates about Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. Joseph Crowley over the recent weeks shows how much we are all being challenged to recreate our lives to meet 21st century demands.

Our conversations about race relations in America remain shallow. I think we try to avoid the pain of digging deeper by obsessing on gossip and sensationalism. And those of us who engage in a deeper dialogue about race are barred from the mainstream news, because being serious about anything nowadays simply doesn't make money.

Let me be very clear: This issue is not about Gates, Crowley or President Barack Obama, as many wish it were that easy. This is about all Americans due to the gigantic moral debt accumulated by centuries of white supremacy, or racism.

Having said that, it's not suppose to feel good, because it's the truth that we're too "cowardly" to face. Besides, you can't get to the light without first overcoming the darkness.

The problem has been that whenever black Americans understandably object to racial practices such as profiling, we are often told in one way or another: "This is your problem, so stop complaining, forgive and get over it."

This reaction assumes that black essence is somehow separate and lesser than white essence. Consequently, the truth of our mutuality is arrogantly dismissed or glossed over.

White behavior is justified by citing black crime statistics, or pointing out that blatant constructs of racism (slavery and segregation) have been dismantled; therefore, racism is not real. We take for granted the tremendous resistance in addressing the extent and depth of the damage done to both blacks and whites from this dark legacy and find ourselves stuck in it.

Without honest emotional release and processing of these historical dynamics, meaningful race relations are impossible.

I am blessed to have white friends who loves this country enough to authentically own their deeper feelings and perceptions about homegrown racism and share them with me. For example, many older white Americans grew up during a time when racism was not consciously viewed as an aberration. However, they subconsciously experience it as a gnawing, festering feeling that want go away.

This is because the universe itself will not ignore such miscreations. The accumulation of guilt is so overwhelming that it becomes too frightening to own, let alone confess. This causes some whites to secretly fear being punished by some blacks, especially if power is equally shared with them.

Given such circumstances, I can understand why resistance to racial matters is such a silent, yet powerful motivator in maintaining the status quo. Therefore, it is critical for blacks to know that whites take responsibility for their moral debt, and for whites to feel assured that black anger is not intent on punishing them, but to heal this racial divide.

But I don't want you to just take my word for the above. For a more scientific understanding of these dynamics, I recommend a series of studies conducted by Claude Steele (1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995). Without going into much detail, this research demonstrates that when the negative stereotype of black intellect is activated or primed in a group of black students from Stanford for whom IQ and SAT scores are equal to their white student counterparts, the blacks performed lower than the whites on the same test when told upfront their intellectual ability will be measured.

Why? In America, both blacks and whites have been deeply damaged by negative stereotypes of black people. Whether realized or not, this brainwashing has become a major part of our implicit understanding of race. The internalization of such destructive images are very subtle, even when we don't believe them consciously.

Little to nothing is ever mentioned how the white students in the studies above are also victims of racism. They came away from the test with a false sense of superiority and specialness, which serves to perpetuate systemic racism in society at large.

Oh, by the way, we should know that IQ and SAT tests provide little insight into the function of practical intelligence in everyday life. Just think about the broad range of implications these and other studies have on race, academics, crime and other areas of society.

In conclusion, subtle racism or profiling was the active ingredient in the Gates-Crowley case. My opinion in based on the remarkable research developed in the 1970s (McConahay & Hough, 1976) which shows that racism has mutated from overt forms to more subtle and implicit versions.

Just about everyone hold secret beliefs and attitudes about members of other races. This is not unusual. However, it becomes problematic when they influence or determine what a person or group actually does.

The incident in question should have ended at the moment Sgt. Crowley became aware that professor Gates was "lawfully" in his home, which was much early on. What happened after this point is simply a learning tool for dealing with tormented racial relations.

Harold Lott is a Gainesville resident and a frequent columnist.

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