I think President Obama was right to soften the tone of his statement the other day on the Gates arrest incident; "stupid" wasn't a helpful word choice.
But the word, I think, accurately describes the reaction of a lot of white male commentators to the incident.
Let's assume (for a minute, anyway) that Sgt. Leon Lashley, the African-American officer who was present at the arrest, got it right when he said Dr. Gates reacted inappropriately to the investigating white police officer, Sgt. James Crowley. Further, let's assume that Sgt. Crowley acted "according to protocol" in arresting Dr. Gates for his overreaction. And further, let's assume that President Obama spoke inappropriately when he used the word "stupidly" without knowing the full story. I'm not saying this is the whole story, or the best way to view the story, but even if we grant these assumptions ...
What remains truly stupid, in my opinion, is for the discussion to stop where it seems to stop among many cable news pundits, sanctimoniously blaming Gates, Crowley, or Obama for this or that transgression. It's especially unwise for white folks like me ... many of whom remain surprisingly unaware of the concept of white privilege ... to fail to see the background reality into which this incident provides a teachable moment. (For a refreshingly reflective analysis, see this short article.)
Whether it's the Gates incident or the Sotomayor hearings, I am saddened to hear so many white American Christians (Catholic, evangelical, etc.) jump on the Hannity/Limbaugh/Buchanan/Beck/Fox News bandwagon. Their reactive move toward finding someone to blame -- case closed -- reveals to me how much these commentators (rather than Billy Graham, any recent Pope, the Bible, or any denominational headquarters) have become the primary source of spiritual formation (not just political misinformation) for large sectors of the white American church.
Sadly, many commentators in the world of religious broadcasting simply apply a thick coat of cosmetic prayer and Bible-talk to the same ideology of their secular thought-leaders. (If your blood pressure is low in this regard and you need to notch it up a few points, watch, listen to, or read Bill Moyers' recent piece on Right Wing Radio, "Rage on the Airwaves." Especially note Bill O'Reilly's spookily frank comments on the "white male power structure.")
Thank God for bridge-building leaders like pastor Efrem Smith, seeking to provide the American Christian community a more fair, balanced, and wise perspective. He, like many of my friends of color, understands how Dr. Gates must have felt, because he has his own stories of committing the "crime" of DWB or DWH (Driving While Black, or Driving While Hispanic). Notable quote:
It's important that my white evangelical brothers and sisters not let Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh give the proper perspective on seeing this issue. Jesus had the ability in scripture of seeing the world from the vantage point of the child, the woman, the Samaritan, and the poor. Why are some evangelical conservatives only willing to see this from the vantage point of the police officer? I know that Dr. Gates isn't poor, but he does represent the historically marginalized in our nation. And please don't down-size this social sin to victimization. I'm not a victim, I'm just an African-American male who gets pulled over by the police from time to time for no reason. This is why I'm with Dr. Gates on this one and you should be too.
"Jesus had the ability ... of seeing the world from the vantage point of the [other]," Smith rightly says. The biblical word for that ability, I think, is compassion. So, as we assess this situation, may we have compassion for Dr. Gates, for Srgts. Lashley and Crowley, for President Obama, and for all our neighbors of whatever skin color who share an ugly history and a messy present moment and the common challenge of creating a better future.
And yes (I'm preaching to my own soul here), may we also feel compassion for the broadcasters whose punditry serves to reinforce white male privilege and reduce compassion for too many of us. After all, they can only speak what's in their hearts, and right now, there's a lot of fear and outrage screaming inside them. Their fear and outrage will only grow as resistance to white male privilege grows, white male privilege being so inherent to reality as they have known it that they consider it normal and the way things ought to be. Unless they are liberated from their fear and freed to discover a better vision of how things can be, their reactions will only get even more shrill and extreme.
Without compassion, without the ability to see the world from the vantage of the other, we're all TWS (talking while stupid).