"Beer summit" won't stop racists like Limbaugh

It's good to see Obama, Gates and Crowley meet, but they can't fix years of racism with a few beers

By Joan Walsh
July 31, 2009 3:31AM (UTC)
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U.S. President Barack Obama (R) sits down for a beer with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates (L), Cambridge, Massachusetts, police Sergeant James Crowley (2nd R) and Vice President Joe Biden to try to start a dialogue on better race relations in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, July 30, 2009. Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct in his own home July 16 while investigating a report of a burglary in process. Obama inflamed tensions by saying police had "acted stupidly," prompting him to back down from the remark.

Reuters/Jim Young

President Obama (right) sits down for a beer with Henry Louis Gates Jr. (left), police Sgt. James Crowley (2nd right) and Vice President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden at the White House Thursday.

Never before have so many cared about three guys having a beer. When the three are President Obama, his friend Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley, who jumped into the headlines when he arrested Gates at his home two weeks ago, well, the hype was unavoidable; in fact, the attention was the point. We were all invited to watch these guys try to drink 400 years of conflict away with a Bud Light, a Sam Adams Light and a Blue Moon (Joe Biden, a late addition to the guest list, had a Buckler, a non-alcoholic beer).


Did the "beer summit" provide us with one of those coveted "teachable moments"? Probably not, because many people seemed to be watching from behind their own racial barricades. Crowley defenders were angry their guy agreed to have a beer with two black men who accused him of at best acting stupidly, and at worst, being a racist. Gates defenders couldn't believe Crowley's being rewarded for what they considered racial profiling: When was the last time you screwed up on the job and got invited to have a beer at the White House?

Me, I didn't change the way I thought about the Gates-Crowley-Obama mess, because I always thought it was incredibly complicated, and a happy-face beer summit couldn't make the situation any less so. But I'm glad they did it. As I said last week, I wish Obama had refrained from directly commenting on the case, especially before he knew all the facts. I understood why Gates was angry, and assuming I now know the facts -- still a big if -- I don't understand why he'd be arrested in his own home, even if he did give Crowley a hard time. Yet I wasn't sure Crowley was being treated fairly, either; cops are on the front lines of all of our intractable race and class conflicts, and without knowing everything, I couldn't say for sure he wrongly arrested Gates. (I also thought, and think, class played an under-examined role in the story of the working-class cop vs. the Harvard professor.)

So I was proud of Obama for admitting his words made a bad situation worse, not better, and happy the three found time to gather for a beer. Would that many other situations fraught with misunderstanding and the potential for real tragedy -- guns, cops and black men have rarely led to a happy beer garden party -- could end this way.


Now today I found myself labeled "the Magic Honky" by Rush Limbaugh, of all people, for what he imagines are my thoughts on the Gates case. (He didn't read my blog post, of course.) Here's what he said:

Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief, Salon.com, also known as The Magic Honky. The real racist is Ms. Joan Walsh, with her race-based materialistic -- or maternalistic attitude toward black people, who have, in her small, little mind, no responsibility for their own actions. This flap over Gates and the cop, Sergeant Walsh [sic], happened as a direct result of actions and words, both Gates' actions and Obama's words. But that doesn't matter a hill of beans to The Magic Honky, Joan Walsh, who sees blacks as perpetual victims in need of her white protections. She sees black people as needing to constantly be reassured by her that she understands that they understand that she is trying real hard not to be a racist.

Wait, am I "Sergeant Walsh," or the Magic Honky? Is Rush confusing me with James Crowley because we're both Irish? Silly of me to try to parse Limbaugh's words as if they have meaning. In his addled mind, I am a liberal; therefore I'm a race traitor, and the complexity of my actual views on race and class don't matter. I'm tempted to suggest that the president invite me and Rush over for some beer-garden diplomacy, but I like Obama, I wouldn't wish that on him or me.

The fact is, nothing Obama says or does, about the Gates controversy or healthcare reform or the economy, will mute the racist haters. Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are using race to try to scare people -- NPR featured a white man complaining that he heard Obama wanted to take his healthcare away and give it to minorities; I've even heard Obama's reform plans described as reparations for slavery (an impractical idea now, but would that we'd done something meaningful 140 years ago). Clearly the beer summit won't reassure racists, but I hope it showed some doubters Obama's basic good nature when it comes to race. (It does sort of kill me that only six months in, Obama's already having to remind people, "Wait! Remember, I'm the black guy you'd like to have a beer with! And Joe's here too, so Skip and I won't outnumber the white guys!") But racial progress in this country is two beers forward, one beer back, so to speak. Obama's racial views represent the future; Limbaugh's are the past. I'm sure Jim Crowley would rather have a beer with Obama than with the radio blowhard.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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