A Modern-Day 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?' President Obama, Vice President Biden, Professor Henry Gates and Sgt. James Crowley met in the Rose Garden yesterday for a beer and a reconciliatory chat about racial divisions. But was it successful?
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A Modern-Day 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?'

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A Modern-Day 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?'

A Modern-Day 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?'

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a popular Christian ministry for men opens its doors to women. We'll find out why. And the Barbershop guys weigh in on the news of the week. But first, we want to talk about the happy hour heard 'round the world - or at least around here. It was last evening, and it was your typical summer get together, four guys enjoying a cool one after work, some pretzels. Two of the guys, well, let's just say they had had their differences, and the other two were trying to help them sort it out. No big thing except that one of them had arrested the other just two weeks before, sparking loud public charges and counter charges of racism. And the two hosts were the president and vice president of arguably the most powerful nation on earth.

We're, of course, talking about the get-together held yesterday at the White House between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge police force, after Crowley's decision to arrest Gates in his own home prompted a public discussion about race and class and attitudes by and about law enforcement. The get-together is being praised by some as a way to cool a distracting and increasingly heated public argument, but others say this is a very superficial way to address some deep issues.

So we decided to ask: What difference does this kind of get-together make? And we decided to call three people who have a reputation for getting people together in very different ways. Joining us now, our wine maven, Callie Crossley. She's a veteran journalist, a media critic and our resident wine maven; she's the author of the wine blog, "The Crushed Grape Report." The Reverend Jim Wallis is founder of Sojourners: Christians for Justice and Peace. And he has long been known for his work in support of racial reconciliation and social and economic justice. And Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn, who's also known as one of the city's premier hostesses. So, welcome to you all. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. SALLY QUINN (Reporter, Washington Post): Thank you.

Reverend JIM WALLIS (Founder, Sojourners: Christians for Justice and Peace): Thank you.

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Author, The Crushed Grape Report): Hello.

MARTIN: So the first thing I wanted to ask each of you, as briefly as you can, was this get together a good idea or a bad idea, and why? Callie, why don't you start?

Ms. CROSSLEY: It was a good idea because President Obama had to try to cap some of the rising anger and confusion about it. And so I think just as a way of just chilling out for a minute, literally, I think that this was a good idea. Now, how effective it was, is another thing.

MARTIN: Okay, Reverend Jim, what about you? Good idea, bad idea, why?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, the professor and the police officer were meeting with the reconciler-in-chief, and it was a kind of - it was a funny picture, but it was archetypal of what needs to happen off camera all over the country. We got to sit down and have some - because those two men got caught up in what I called the script. They couldn't get out of the script. So how do we disentangle from that script? It's going to take some serious conversation. How serious that was, I'm not sure, but it's an archetype what has to happen around the country.

MARTIN: Sally, what do you think?

Ms. QUINN: I think it was a great idea. And I think it's, as Jim knows, I'm all in favor of dialogue because I think that so many times, people have views of each other - especially if they're a different race or different class - where they don't really understand each other. They don't really know about each other. And the more people can get together and to see the things that they have in common, as opposed to things they don't have in common, is really important.

And I also thought that it was symbolic, that the president was basically saying, look, you know, we all have our differences. You can agree to disagree, but we can also sit down at the table. And, you know, you can translate that into foreign policy and diplomacy, as well as just two guys having a beer, or three guys having a beer.

MARTIN: I wanted to also ask each of you - and Sally, I'll start with you on this one. Have you ever done this? Have you ever put together a social event for the purpose of smoothing out some differences? And does that work? Sally, have you ever done that?

Ms. QUINN: Well, I can't specifically say, I mean, because…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. QUINN: …you know, if you - I generally have people for dinner or - at my house because I want to have a good time. And so I would - I can't think of a time where I have actually had people together who I thought would not like each other. But I did recently have a dinner for Pastor T.D. Jakes, Potter's House, who's a black minister. And…

MARTIN: A very well-known one.

Ms. QUINN: Yes, and a fabulous guy. And I very carefully selected the guest list so that there were people who didn't know about him. I had some people who were atheists. I had some Catholics. I had different people from different points of view. And I deliberately made an effort to have at least as many blacks as whites at the table.

MARTIN: And you normally wouldn't do that?

Ms. QUINN: Well, I normally wouldn't count. You know, normally, I would say let's have so and so because they're fun. You know, and if they're - whether they're black or white is not - I don't take - I've never taken that under consideration because I like to have people I like at my house and - who are fun and who are - who make an effort and, you know, want to be part of the evening. But in this particular case, I did just because I wanted to have a conversation about race, and we did. We spent - I mean, I don't think anybody left until midnight because we - I deliberately said, let's talk about race.

MARTIN: Hmm. That's interesting. And I want to hear more about that in a minute. But I want to ask - let me just jump in just briefly to say if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking about the get-together the president and vice president hosted last evening for professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley, who had arrested him. And they had - to talk things out. And we're speaking with Sally Quinn, Callie Crossley and the Reverend Jim Wallis about this. Reverend Jim, what about you? Have you ever done that?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, I do this as part of my work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. WALLIS: I'm getting together people all time on issues of poverty, abortion common ground, immigration reform, certainly race. But I want to say that I think this works better when you're in a context, when you're already in conversation, in a relationship with people who are very diverse. We were talking this morning about our kids. Before the show started, my two kids who go to one of the - probably the most diverse public school in the city.

And, you know, how this conversation plays out among friends who are diverse and are already friends and who are doing baseball together and soccer together and school together, it's a different thing than in an America when, you know, there just isn't a lot of real conversation among people in the social context about race. You have to have a conversation about race to have a conversation about race. And I think it's a lot a better when you're, you know - I came home, I was on vacation for this and I came home and talked to a friend, a friend of mine who drives a cab. And he's a dear friend. And, you know, I said, well, okay. What's your take? And he told me about all the conversations he's been having all week.

MARTIN: He's African-American?

Rev. WALLIS: Yeah. And, you know, and for him, who says…

MARTIN: And you're white, for people who don't know.

Rev. WALLIS: …yeah. He said - I'm - I've been in his shoes. In this town, virtually, all of black Washington's been swapping stories about their experience with cops. You know, it's just been happening all the time. Now, that's happening in black Washington. How much is it happening among people in Washington across racial lines? So my friend was saying, well, here's my stories. And everyone's selling stories. And I told stories about Detroit when I was growing up. So I think, you know, the good news is there's a new generational context, a new generation, a younger generation, number one has less baggage about all this stuff, number two find themselves in more diverse, multiracial context as part of their lives than their parents do. And that's a good - that's a sign of hope.

MARTIN: Callie in 19 - in 2005, ABC News, where you and I both used to work…

Ms. CROSSLEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …did a poll about contacts between the races; 75 percent of whites and 82 percent of blacks say - told the pollsters that they had a friend of the other race. But just under half of whites, 48 percent, said that they had had dinner with a friend of another race; 63 percent of blacks said that they had had dinner with friend of another race. And Callie, I'm just curious. What do you make of that?

Ms. CROSSLEY: What I make of it is that I would question the definition. I think there are a lot of water cooler friends across races, meaning people meet at the water cooler and talk about stuff lightly, but they don't go below the surface. What Reverend Wallace has said is extremely important. For me, my friends who are the other races, we have had the ugly conversation. We have thrown the stuff, yelled at each other, said I don't understand how you could believe that - that kind of place to be, as you would with any friend, to get to a point of trust and grace so that you can really, really express how you feel. I mean, get below the surface to have that conversation. And it's an ongoing one.

It's not one-time, it's not two hours in a session, with somebody guiding you through a facilitated conversation, though that is important in and of itself. What you really want to get to is the deeper kind of trust and experience. And for my part, I have some very good friends, but they are small in number. I have a wider circle of many acquaintances, of lots of folks from different races. It's a tough thing. People don't want to go there because they don't - they're afraid of what you might say and actually what they might say, and where that would leave them.

MARTIN: Well there is that old question of - what Sally was talking about is that in general, you have people over to your house to relax. So then, but then the question is, is it in fact harder to sort of entertain the idea well, I'm going to invite people over who might make me uncomfortable, just because they might raise things that I don't necessarily want to think about in my free time.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I would do that if I'm gathering together some acquaintances. Again, as I said, and if there is - the point of it is to really begin to talk about some of these things. But if I'm just having a regular social situation, I'm having my friends, and we're already going to be at a space where we're feeling trust and comfort with each other and no matter what comes up in conversation, we can handle it.

MARTIN: Reverend Wallis, we're going to have to let you go soon, so I'm going to go to you next. But how - you sort of eluded to the fact that you'd kind of liked the see beer diplomacy - with or without the beer - carry forward with the rest of us. How did you think that should happen?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, I agree with these comments. But the water cooler conversation is just way too safe. It's just way too, you know, it's too short - it's too safe. I remember when I was a kid in Detroit, I was working at Detroit Edison - summer job. And I had this friend, and he was black and I was white, and we were both janitors together, right. And so, I was saving my money for college, and he was supporting his family. His father had died; he was taking care of the family. Elevator operators and we - you had to take breaks, you know, back when we had elevator operators. On his breaks, he'd ride with me in my elevator and my breaks, I'd ride with him - up and down, talking about - we realized that we had grown up in two different countries called black and white Detroit.

And he took me home for dinner one night around the table. And I met his mother, just like my mom, just afraid that her son's militancy would get him in trouble. She told me that she told her kids when you're lost, can't find your way home, if you see a police officer, hide, run under a stairway, around a corner. When he leaves, you come out and find your way home. I heard my mother's words echoing in my head when she said that. My mom would say, if you're lost, can't find your way home, look for a police officer. He'll take y ou by the hand and bring you back home. You only learn that stuff around tables, you know. So I think we've got to have these conversations. A new generation is having them, and that's a good, good sign.

MARTIN: Reverend Wallis, we need to take a short break. Reverend Wallis was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. We have to - he has to leave now. But we're going to continue this conversation about race and socializing, and what it means to get together, with journalist Callie Crossley and Sally Quinn. We'll be back after a very short break. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, we hear your take on the news of the week, in Backtalk. But first, we're going to continue our conversation about last night's get-together at the White House with the president and the vice president, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge police sergeant, James Crowley, who had arrested Gates for disorderly conduct after investigating reports of a suspected break-in at Gates's home. But the charges were quickly dropped. The case had become a flashpoint as each disputed the other's account of the event. And it became a metaphor for larger conversations about race and class and law enforcement. We wanted to talk about, what difference does a get-together make?

And does a get-together do anything to advance these larger issues; should it? So, we've called three people with a history of bringing people together. We had to say goodbye to the social justice activist, the Reverend Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners. Still with us are journalist, media critic and wine maven Callie Crossley. She's the author of the wine blog, The Crushed Grape Report. And a Washington Post reporter, Sally Quinn, who is also known as one of the city's hostesses with the mostest(ph). Thank you for staying with us. So, Sally, I wanted to go back to something you were talking about. You said you recently had a dinner with the Reverend T. D. Jakes.

He's very well-known African-American minister, published many best-sellers, and sort of a very big figure. You had an evening where you kind of talked about race. I wanted to ask, you know, how did that go? And did people - how did people feel about being invited to talk about that topic?

Ms. QUINN: I did want to get into a conversation about religion and race, but I didn't announce that beforehand. I invited people who I thought would be fun and interesting for him to meet. We didn't talk about race all night, you know. I introduced that sort of midevening. But you know, he is so open and so easy. I mean, just to look at this conversation we're having now. I think that things have improved 100 percent since Obama ran for office and was elected, because I think people couldn't have these conversations about race.

And, you know, you're talking about how in the black neighborhoods, people are talking about this whole episode. But they're also talking about it in white neighborhoods. I wouldn't have said what I'm going to say now a year ago, because I would've been afraid to say this. But it works the other way. I live in a small area of Washington called Georgetown. And every year, Georgetown has a huge Halloween party.

And the streets are filled and it got to be quite dangerous and, you know, people would drink too much and everything else. So the police kind of cordoned off Georgetown except for the main streets, so that people could walk up and down the street and have a party. But for the residents, because there was, you know, there were just so many people throwing bottles and all that…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. QUINN: …sort of thing. They only let the residents, you had to show your driver's license to be able to drive in to Georgetown on Halloween evening. And we went out, we came back. And it was - it's cordoned off by the police. And I took out my driver's license, which had my address on it and there was a black policeman, and he wouldn't let me in. I mean, he started screaming at me and yelling at me and calling me names, and it was very unpleasant. My response was, yes sir, officer sir…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I see what you're saying. Callie…

Ms. QUINN: …at the end of it, but…

MARTIN: Callie, I'm sorry, Sally. And I need to get - give Callie a chance to give a final thought as well, as briefly as she can. I appreciate your sharing that story. Callie, a final thought from you.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I'm the daughter of a woman who was born to a sharecropper and lived in a small Louisiana town, where she was accosted and (unintellibiel) all of her life. And she got a chance to go to Chicago when she was 16 years old, where she met the first white person who was ever kind to her and became her friend for many years. And from there she came - when she had us, my sister and myself, she said, I never want you to think the world is this small or people are that small. And so, I sort of began, if you will, my life thinking that there would always be an expansive list of friends, and I mean friends, in my circle and I've worked…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CROSSLEY: …toward that.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there. But hey, let's get together.


Ms. QUINN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. QUINN: How about - why don't we all get together and have a cold one?

MARTIN: All right, a cold one.

Ms. CROSSLEY: It would be wine for me.

MARTIN: It would be wine for Callie, and a Sprite for me.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I'll go for wine.

MARTIN: Callie Crossley is the author of the wine blog, The Crushed Grape Report. She joined us from KOBN, Albuquerque, in New Mexico. And Washington Post writer Sally Quinn was kind enough to join us by phone from her summer home in the New York area. Thank you both.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

Ms. QUINN: Thank you.

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