While I recently was abroad, one of my hosts mentioned she had heard or read somewhere that President Barack Obama had "gotten into some kind of trouble" related to race.
I assured her and others present that if Obama had racial trouble, someone else must have dragged him into it. "Our president," I told her, "avoids race like the plague. Americans hate to talk about race, and they won't support anyone who talks about it seriously."
Sure enough, I learned that one of Obama's famous friends, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., had drawn the president into the quagmire of race. Being forced to talk about race is nothing new for Obama. During the presidential campaign, the Illinois senator had to speak directly about race in Philadelphia after comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, put him on the spot.
Obama is smart to avoid race. He does not know much about it from the perspective of black Americans of nonmixed heritage who are condemned to living with their skin color, other features and their experiences. He certainly does not understand life under Jim Crow.
In The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Obama wrote that "my own upbringing hardly typifies the African-American experience" and that "largely through luck and circumstance, I now occupy a position that insulates me from most of the bumps and bruises that the average black man must endure."
The president apparently has not learned anything new about race since that acknowledgement, as shown in his words and actions in the Gates affair.
Having just returned to his Harvard home after a trip to China, Gates, accompanied by his black taxi driver, had trouble with the front door of the house. A passerby saw the two men forcing entry, the police were called, and a white officer from Cambridge responded.
From there, some matters are in dispute. But it is clear that Gates yelled at the officer. The police report says Gates suggested that the officer was a racist, had profiled him and had "no idea who he was messing with." Gates went on to "play the dozens," and according to the report told the officer, "I'll speak with your mama outside." Gates denies referring to the officer's mother.
The good professor was handcuffed, arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The charge was later dropped, and, without having all the details, Obama accused the Cambridge police department of acting "stupidly" for arresting his friend.
Perhaps the department did act stupidly, but Gates and Obama also acted stupidly. Obama's lack of personal experience with the black experience caused him to speak ill-advisedly. Gates' outsized celebrity and ego caused him to do so.
Their words and actions teach young black males, who see them as role models, exactly the wrong lessons. Surviving unscathed as an ordinary black male might be the toughest act in the United States. After all, we are permanent outsiders, perpetually viewed with suspicion or contempt.
To survive unscathed, without deep pockets and celebrity, we have to be smart. We must have a lot of common sense. We must learn to give and take at the right times. We must get the lay of the land before acting. We must learn to distinguish earnest principle from self-destructive pride. We must learn to respect legitimate authority.
Our goal is to put ourselves in control of our destiny as much as possible. The easiest way to relinquish control of our destiny is to get arrested and trapped in the judicial netherworld. The last things a young black male wants in our security-obsessed, crime-averse culture are a rap sheet and bad credit.
In some other parts of the country or even in another part of greater Boston, Gates could have gotten himself killed. He is now joking about the incident, saying, for example, that he might get arrested the next time he visits the White House.
Instead of joking, Gates, along with Obama, should be telling young black males this: Without attitude or trash talk, obey when a police officer gives you a lawful order. Officers wear name plates on their shirts. Always memorize the name and rank of the officer you are dealing with for your lawyer if you think you will need one. You do not give up your manhood when you use your brains to survive.
When encountering the police, your goal is to get home unscathed and without getting arrested. So, if you are not rich and famous, do not follow the example of Henry Louis Gates Jr. You will not get an invitation to have a cold brew with your friend, the president. In this new postracial America, you still might lose your life.