Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Lesson From Gates Arrest: Listen To Each Other

In her weekly commentary, host Michel Martin shares thoughts about the much-discussed arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Martin, who is both African-American and hails from a family of cops, says the incident — and President Obama's response — should remind us all to take a moment to listen to each other.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, another word about Gatesgate - that much-discussed arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. almost two weeks ago. Like a lot of people who have weighed in in recent days, I feel a strong personal connection to this story. Like professor Gates, I am African-American. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, and I know the area well. I even know the street where professor Gates lives and was arrested. I've interviewed professor Gates several times. And while I don't know the officer who made the arrest, Sergeant James Crowley, I do know quite a few other police officers very well because they are my relatives.

There are six current or former police officers in my family, including my father, two of my uncles, my aunt, my cousin and her husband although my father, it has to be said, let down the side and became a firefighter before I was born.

I say all that to say I feel I have a foot in both sides of the story. I know what it's like to be treated rudely and inappropriately by police officers in a manner I simply do not see being directed at people who do not look like me. I can go into detail, but what's the point? You either believe it by now or you don't. But I'll say this: If you have any black or Latino friends in your life at all, if they care about you enough to tell you the truth of their lives, then you know, or should know, that there is a problem with the way minorities are routinely treated by law enforcement officials in this country. The data shows it. The polls show it. And the people in your own life will testify to it if you care to listen.

Here's what else I know. I know what it's like to have someone you love confront angry, irrational people day after day after day. I know what it's like to have your loved ones spat upon, cursed at, called every name in the book for doing their best to keep their community safe. I know what it's like to have a loved one walk out the door, and all you can do is pray you will see them again at the end of the day because any door they walk through could have a gun or a knife on the other side of it; any mistake they make could be their last. In other words, I can relate to every side of this story.

And can I just tell you? So can Barack Obama. He grew up the son of a white woman and a black man in one of the most racially diverse communities in this country, and he worked as an adult in one of the most segregated. He has thought as much and as deeply about race as anybody, so it seems to me that when he tells us something about race, it might behoove all of us to listen. I find it interesting that there were few complaints when he told the NAACP gala crowd that black parents need to turn off the Xbox, get their kids to bed earlier, and attend to their studies. So why the chorus of how-dare-yous when Obama also pointed out that the white police officer in this case, and too many others like it, could stand to show black and brown people more simple courtesy and respect - especially to a middle-aged, partially disabled, African-American man standing in his own kitchen.

Obama took a risk last week speaking up in the first place, and he took another risk walking his comments back. There's a danger here that he will be seen as favoring his own, always a problem for a black politician but rarely for a white one. And on the other hand, there's the danger that he will be seen as a sellout. But I think he was, in addition to making a political calculation, making a point about something we as Americans, as a people with a history of racial conflict, could all stand to do: Take a step back. Listen to what the other guy has to say, and see people as individuals - which was, it seems to me, a fundamental thing that was missing in the interaction between Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates. If President Obama, as busy as he is, can take the time to do that, I wonder if the rest of us can try it as well.

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And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues