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Factors beyond racism

Opinion | What should be learned from the incident in Cambridge, Mass., involving the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.?

Slavery and racism have been like a soiled garment that America has diligently and at great expense tried to wipe clean. President Obama acknowledged at his news conference last week that America has made "great progress" in the direction of racial reconciliation and he is living proof of that.

Having acknowledged these truths, what should be learned from the incident in Cambridge, Mass., in which African-American scholar Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. was arrested in his home after a neighbor, Lucia Whalen, called 911 to report "two men" on Gates' porch trying to force open the front door? According to a statement issued by her attorney and backed by Robert Haas, commissioner of the Cambridge Police, she did not mention the race of the two men. If Whalen were African-American would that change the dynamic of the conversation we're having? That two of the officers who came to Gates' home were minorities-one African-American, one Hispanic-apparently doesn't count because the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, is white. It also doesn't count that Crowley teaches a class on racial profiling and that he was named to that post by his boss, an African-American, who attests to his non-racist bona fides.

Like President Obama, I know Skip Gates. He recently gave me a personal tour of the African-American museum at Harvard after we had corresponded about his excellent PBS program "African American Lives." Gates is a classy guy with excellent social skills and a sharp mind.

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Also like President Obama, I wasn't at the scene of the Cambridge confrontation. If one accepts the police report, Gates apparently said things he ought not to have said. Is that understandable? It is certainly human nature. I sometimes get upset when "profiled" by Transportation Security Administration employees because I've had difficulty getting off a terrorist suspect list. It is tempting to say, "If I were a terrorist shouting 'death to America' you'd probably let me go through," but because I know it would do no good and that I could be arrested and miss my flight, I hold my tongue.

To the larger point made by Gates and the president about blacks disproportionately singled out for stops and arrests because of their race, the media have some responsibility in this. Most news reports show blacks as the perpetrators or victims of violent crime. Most news interviews with black mothers (and many TV commercials) have no man in the picture, because in far too many cases there isn't one. He is either the absent father, deceased, or in prison.

Much of the violent crime in America occurs in low-income neighborhoods. Race isn't the cause of these crimes; a social system put in place by liberal Democrats is to blame. That system does not encourage minorities to succeed. It enables them in their victimhood and sense of impoverishment. Liberal Democrats refuse to allow poor black children to escape failing government schools. The welfare system, revised by a Republican Congress and reluctantly signed into law by President Bill Clinton, has doomed several generations of African-Americans to misery, complacency, and despondency. Black children who do succeed are accused of "acting white" and urged to fall back into the cycle of failure experienced by many of their friends.

President Obama properly apologized to Sgt. Crowley and his department for suggesting they acted "stupidly." He is also doing the right thing by inviting Professor Gates and the officer to the White House for what one hopes will be a moment of reconciliation. He thankfully has begun (at the recent NAACP convention) to attack the underpinnings of an attitude that still reigns in much of the black community: that failure is someone else's fault. Black people who have succeeded by playing according to race-neutral rules are testimony to the lie behind that claim.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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