Gates Case Should Expand Discussion Of Race The arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own home in Cambridge, Mass., has prompted much discussion of racial profiling. Commentator Dominique Apollon says that just goes to show how narrow the national discussion of race can be.

Gates Case Should Expand Discussion Of Race

Dominique Apollon is research director of the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank and home for media and activism based in Oakland, Calif., and New York, N.Y. Courtesy of Dominique Apollon hide caption

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Courtesy of Dominique Apollon

The recent arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at his Cambridge home and the largely predictable public response that followed reminds me that what typically passes in our country for racial dialogue is so ... well, frustratingly narrow.

Many people of color (including Gates himself) have been shaking their heads saying, "I told you it was about race," while many whites have been rolling their eyes. One comment, responding to a Boston Globe article posted on boston.com, argued, "Enough of throwing down the race card ... we have a black president now, so that tired old ship has sailed."

Our national conversation on race gets stalled in a debate about race cards and whether a particular person such as an arresting police officer/diversity training instructor is a racist instead of talking about the broader patterns and the collective solutions.

As uncomfortable as it may be in some quarters, what we need to focus upon are outcomes. And I say this as someone who has been racially profiled, so I understand the humiliation and anger that it engenders.

Racial outcomes are our best barometer for how much progress we are making in the quest to form an egalitarian land of opportunity. The persistent disparities between blacks and whites in the U.S. tell one of two possible stories: people of color on balance have considerably less access to resources and chances for advancement, or we are irreversibly inferior to white Americans in intellect and ability. How else to explain the gross racial disparities we continue to see in education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities, homeownership and other wealth, access to health care and health outcomes, arrest and prison population demographics?

I suspect that many more of us continue to subscribe to the inferiority explanation than are willing to admit it. Otherwise we'd be outraged into action. But the fact is that the playing field was not level at our nation's founding, and continues to be horribly skewed. The allocation of wealth, opportunities and government has always been and to this day remains widely out-of-proportion in favor of whites.

Does recognition of this fact mean there are no whites in poverty who could use and fully deserve better educational and employment opportunities? No. Does it allow that a relative handful of people of color will overcome the odds and find middle-class success comparable to the median white family or even better? Absolutely.

But until we see comparable rates and outcomes of "success" throughout society by race and ethnicity, we will know that significant work remains to create the sort of egalitarian society that we all should want. We need the sort of conscious societal dialogue, commitment and resolve that closing these significant racial gaps deserves.