The Crimson Shield of Truth


The Harvard University crest takes the form of a crimson shield, surrounded by laurel wreaths, on which are depicted three open books bearing the Latin word, "Veritas"(truth). The design symbolizes a belief that mastery and "truth" can be found through study, research and contemplation, and that educational truth can be a crimson shield for victory in the battle against ignorance.Last week, two Harvard stars ran smack into the reality that truth can wear more than one face. Both men are exceptional scholars, high achievers and outstanding leaders known for their ability to overcome racial obstacles. They have done so well in achieving the American dream that both expected to be treated in a color-blind, post-racial fashion.Neither tenured Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., nor Harvard Law graduate (and President of the United States) Barack Obama are seeking sympathy because their race has been a hindrance to them. On the contrary, their exceptional abilities and intact egos have allowed both men to compete with the best and brightest in the world. Both men appear to have assumed that the crimson shield of their educational accomplishments could protect them from the ignorance of racial injustice.But over the past week, each man made a split-second decision to utter a few inopportune remarks---under the full glare of media attention. First, Gates, in an egotistical huff, asked a white police officer a rhetorical question, "You don't know who you're messing with, do you?" The answer (a perpetrator of disorderly conduct) was not what the good professor expected to hear. Subsequently, President Obama was reminded that using the word "stupid" to describe the actions of a police department might be viewed as inflammatory language, especially when one does not have all the facts at hand.Both of these missteps would have meant little except for the issue of race. For a moment both of these men forgot that the power of racial politics is so pervasive and engulfing that Americans are in a constant battle to vanquish it.Both Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley, the arresting officer, believed they were speaking the truth in their version of events. President Obama undoubtedly felt he spoke the truth as well in his evaluation of the incident. But that's the damnable thing about racial issues. Those who, based on their life experiences, feel that racial discrimination still exists are as confident of their truth as those who feel those issues are all in the past and are therefore irrelevant in 21st century America. In fact, it is profoundly clear that, despite the image of the crimson shield, there exists no singular, capital-T "Truth", no single "Veritas" upon which educated people can agree on the subject of racial justice.To many African Americans, Professor Gates' story is as familiar as the ABC's they learned in childhood. Most black children are taught to be wary of police encounters, because people will make assumptions about them based on their skin color, and they are taught that it is their responsibility to protect themselves from the criminal justice, economic and psychological tolls of racism.For a moment, all the media brouhaha about the Gates-Crowley affair punctured the optimistic illusion that the election of an African American president could serve as a sort of magic sword to vanquish centuries of racism and discrimination.Many believe that what happened to Prof. Gates was his own responsibility, for speaking inappropriately and unwisely to an officer in the line of duty, while many, many others believe that what happened reflects the evils of our society, the realities of racial profiling and the truth about police abuse of power when dealing with women and racial minorities. Gates has spent his career teaching, lecturing and making television programs to educate the public about African American history. Hopefully, this incident will become a mere footnote to his biography. After all, he was released within hours under his own recognizance, and the disorderly conduct charges were immediately dropped.President Obama faces a different situation. As if scattered with stones and potholes, the road he travels is full of individuals and organizations that are waiting for him to stumble, fall and lose control of his governance agenda. To succeed, he needs to adroitly step over and around any racial hurdles, as he tries to heal a nation bleeding from the wounds of wars abroad and economic devastation at home. His leadership position demands that he turn the Cambridge police incident into a real, nationwide "teachable moment", bringing to bear all the weight of his educational career at Columbia and Harvard, and his years as a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago.When, as Attorney General Eric Holder has suggested, America begins the difficult conversation about racism, we will finally be on our way to seeking a unified truth about its status in our society. Then we may come to know the truth, and the truth will help us to guard the democratic rights we hold so dear. And perhaps, the truth will set us free.