If Harvard’s Divinity School students are any indicator, it’s quite possible that Henry Louis Gates is a man looking for a fight. When I was there, there were a lot of African-American students who like Malcolm X more than Martin Luther King, Jr. – even in a class on Martin Luther King, Jr. These students were fighting the spectre of racism all around them, even when nobody was hurting them in class. There are those who would say my (White) presence was oppressing them, just by my being there. But how else was I going to learn about a great man, but to study the great man in school? I was there to build connections to Black culture while they said I was spying on the Black Community or stealing its great ideas. The rap about “Malcolm made Martin seem better” went on for weeks until the teacher ( a Black man) absolutely “lost it” in class and told the class that Martin’s building of community worked a whole lot better and longer than Malcolm’s anger which isolated the wider community.
Within the Black community, just as in the White community, there is a spectrum of thought, action, and feeling, etc. I suspect, (though I like Gates’ writing, what I’ve read of it) that he is closer to Jeremiah Wright than Barack Obama in his understanding of the issue of racism. On the other side of that spectrum is Alan Keyes and, historically, George Washington Carver. So, it’s possible that Henry Louis Gates might be seeing racists under every bush. I should point out that, under Bush II, it didn’t take much to see them. But it’s a different day and I digress. Within White culture– there are most people I’d hang around with including bi-racial couples, then many more conservative people, then somewhere out there the David Dukes and Grand Dragons of the world. Ain’t life grand?
Having picked on Gates, let’s look at the policemen at the scene (yes, including the African-American from the news pictures). They ought to know how to handle a situation with any apparently frustrated person. They ought to know how to de-escalate a situation with anyone, regardless of race. Maybe the officer got up on the wrong side of the bed that day, maybe he had too much coffee or a fight with his wife that morning. Maybe he got sick of dealing with rich, whiny people. Maybe, he was trying to hold the Thin Blue Line and thought people need to respect THE POLICE simply because they are THE POLICE. That whole culture has some deep psychological issues, as well, stemming from the NEED to be right or society will fall apart. Ask a friend of mine who got hit on the leg with a baton while playing a video game for not leaving fast enough.
Did they ask “stupidly”? Well, this is not how the situation was supposed to happen. If, in fact, the officer is such an expert on racial profiling, he should have had the African-American policeman who was there try to de-escalate the situation when the race card got played by the angry Black man in the house. In any case, two men who were in bad mental space last week had a blow-out in Cambridge. One was Black. One was a policeman. Who’s at fault is not really the question. The question, it seems to me, is a question that Mr. Obama has missed (or risen above) on some level, because of who he is personally. The question is this: Just how bad were things in America when he arrived on Pennsylvania Avenue? How bad was racism when he got to office? How much hurt was there, how much alienation of Black folks was there? How much had poverty, marginalization, and alienation was there between Blacks and those who run this country?
I think that when vice-president Biden said about the economy “we didn’t know how bad it was” and Obama corrected him saying, “we didn’t have all the information yet”, both were technically right. They were just taking the pulse of the patient in different ways. Saying “this patient is almost dead” and waiting for the test results to come up on the monitor before you say the same thing don’t make the patient any more or less healthy. But, regarding good race-relations in America, that patient was almost dead when Obama stepped into office.
In the world of psychotherapy, there are different ways of offering help – each effective in a different situation. Some cases require rapport to be built, safety to be addressed, and then (and only then) therapy can actually take place. Another form of therapy is called Solution-Focused or short-term therapy. It builds upon the strengths that are already there for the couple or family and pays little, if any, attention to experiencing the pain in the client(s). The trick to deciding which one to use is by understanding what the situation is and starting there – not where the therapist wants to start, but what the situation calls for.
In cases where one of the people has a past history of abuse, solution- focused simply won’t do it. The therapist has to start by acknowledging the pain that the abused person has been in and creating safety for them before the actual moving-toward-the- future of the couple can happen. I see this all the time in therapy. Person One has a history of sexual or physical or emotional abuse in prior relationships and they have (wisely) married someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Person Two (the non-fly-hurting one) just can’t understand why Person One is yelling all the time, or mean to them, when they haven’t done anything wrong – or at least not abusive. Person Two says, “They’re psycho and yelling all the time”. Person One says, “They’re abusing me!” Note that if Person Two really were abusing them, they probably wouldn’t say a thing – they’d be too scared. So here they come to therapy, both people saying they want things to get better.
Working on the relationship and planning for a beautiful future won’t work until there is a future to work on. On the other hand, if the relationship is basically healthy, re-hashing all of the past hurts without building a future leaves the status quo. Solution-focused therapy allows for real movement for the couple because it is action oriented. Just because the therapist wants to use solution focused therapy doesn’t make it the right tool. You can’t just move ahead with abuse survivors. Make no mistake about it, racism is abuse – fully realized, soul scarring, nasty as hell and painful to get over, abuse. So are poverty and alienation and all the other –isms. The depth of the pain determines the course of treatment. We have a president who is feeling pressured to do solution-focused therapy to get things rolling when things like racism, poverty, alienation, lack of health care, just don’t respond well to that kind of treatment. Therapist Obama in this case needs to explain to the non-offending partner the pain that abused partner has experienced and how bad it has been. This creates safety for the abused partner and, as an aside, gets the non-offending person really mad at the earlier abuser for being such an S.O.B. and putting both people through hell. After the couple has come to terms with the past abuser then — and only then — can the couple go off into the future as one big happy unit and start building a future.
One really good speech on racism during the campaign is not the same as long-term therapy to get over abuse. It’s a big step for people who have never talked about their problem, but it’s not enough to fix what ails us. Our deeper issues won’t go away without a lot more work. Let’s hope Mr. Obama has the resolve to do long-term therapy.