One Beer Won't End The Race Conversation

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President Obama's beer diplomacy to try to resolve a racially-charged encounter between a Harvard professor and a Cambridge police officer may be over, but many attending a convention of the National Urban League, one of the country's oldest civil rights organizations, say the conversation about race must continue. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Just as the controversy over the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was in full stride, thousands of African-Americans gathered in Chicago for a meeting of one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the country, the National Urban League, where the membership weighed in on the touchy subject of race.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: Many of the people attending this convention of the National Urban League agree it was good for President Obama, who had originally said the police arrest was stupid, to meet with Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley.

Darnell Williams is the president of the Urban League in Eastern, Massachusetts. He says it's often uncomfortable for people to talk about race, but the Gates/Crowley incident is one of the latest to show that dialogue is still necessary.

Mr. DARNELL WILLIAMS (Urban League): Regardless of what happened on that night, our experiences are different. And unless we sit down and talk through those differences, we're never going to fix this problem.

CORLEY: The talk did continue at an Urban League forum focusing on the state of black America. Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson said despite the White House beer summit, there's still a real problem on the street. Dyson says a disproportionate number of black and Latino men and women are subject to arbitrary forms of police power. He says he learned early, growing up in Detroit, what his role with the police should be.

Professor MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Georgetown University): I know while at the crib - yes, sir; no, sir. Is that what you think? Yes, sir. Now, intellectually and invisibly, I'm raising a finger at him, not the first two, not the last two.

But I know and I understand that you have to tell your young kids not behave the way Professor Gates did. Let's be real about it. You don't have Harvard pedigree. You don't have Barack Obama as your friend.

What you've got is your black skin indicting you and be quiet and silent, until such time you can assert your manhood later on. (Unintelligible) testosterone -black survival. That's what the real deal is. That's what I know.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORLEY: Dyson called the meeting at the White House symbolic, but it didn't impress political activists and BET commentator Jeff Johnson.

Mr. JEFF JOHNSON (Commentator, Black Entertainment Television): I'm offended by the discussion at the White House. And I'm offended by it because if we were serious about dealing with the issue, Gates would be there, Crowley would there, but so would Tyrone and Shaniqua and a bunch of other young people from the hood that in the last week have dealt with a similar kind of psychosis from police departments all over the country, and they are ignored in this conversation.

CORLEY: Stephanie Jones is the executive director of the National Urban League's Policy Institute and the editor of the League's state of black America report. She says when people do begin talking about race, they don't think about the implications of who has the power in certain situations.

Ms. STEPHANIE JONES (National Urban League): We have this idea that if it's from a white American perspective, then that is the norm and that is unbiased, it's color-blind, it's fair from the beginning, and anything that deviates from that, then it's suspect.

CORLEY: At this conference of the National Urban League, discussions about health care, education, opportunities for employment with a growing green economy, avoiding home foreclosures, and other issues have been the major concerns.

Even so, Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, says he's glad the conversation about the Gates/Crowley controversy became an organic discussion here and throughout the country. And he hopes it doesn't fade away.

Mr. KEN SMIKLE (President, Target Market News): I don't want it to go into the realm of buffoonery. But this is going to become a pop culture marker of sorts. And if it allows more serious voices to prevail, in the context of an ongoing discussion, then some good might come out of it.

CORLEY: Perhaps another serious speech with a perspective on race from the White House. And if not, perhaps from Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley, who say they plan to hold more meetings.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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