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Skip The Gates Thing (for Now)

Harold Pollack is a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and Special Correspondent for The Treatment. 

Count me among those appalled by the unjustified arrest of Professor Gates at his own home after a foolish but non-violent confrontation with Cambridge police officer James Crowley. At the Reality Based Community, Mark Kleiman and Steven Teles have written beautifully about this incidence. Arrests for “Contempt of Cop” is an all-too-common practice. And the rough handling of a Harvard professor calls to mind, albeit with many differences, the much rougher treatment of so many black and brown men who endure the tender mercies of our criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, this summer is precisely not the teachable moment we need to engage racial profiling and the mass incarceration of minority men. Without diminishing the importance of these critical issues, I fear that this weird incident distracts attention from the knife-fight we are now waging to provide health coverage to almost 50 million uninsured Americans, and to help an even greater number of fellow citizens who are underinsured or who need economic help. (As Michael Crowley notes, this case brings other political dangers as a platform to discuss race in the criminal justice system for other reasons, too.)

Health reform is a prominent issue of racial justice. Medical care remains an arena of glaring inequalities. More than one-fifth of African-Americans (and more than one-third of Hispanic Americans) are uninsured. Millions of African-Americans become disabled or die sooner than they should from because of common conditions that could be addressed through better clinical interventions and policies. This summer’s health reform debate is therefore one of the most important legislative moments affecting minority communities in years.

This is, indeed a teachable moment. Yet the real lesson concerns message discipline. I recently called a friend in government to discuss a policy initiative I favor. He said “That’s great--but not now. We can’t do anything that will cost a single day or a single vote in the fight for health reform.” That’s precisely right. Hours of unfocused TV stories and media commentary on “race in America” centered on this weird incident sucks oxygen from a historic effort to reduce structural inequality.

President Obama hopes to diffuse the situation over beer with Gates and Crowley. That gracious gesture exemplifies the President’s tact and diplomacy. Then the President should have a beer with two guys in south Chicago trying to finance cancer surgery for a parent or sibling. White guys, black guys, Hispanic guys, some women too, are all too available to tell their stories.

By all means, let’s have a national conversation about race in our criminal justice system. That’s great--six months from now.

--Harold Pollack