Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue

It’s official: President Obama, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Crowley will meet on Thursday at the White House, in the first such gathering of its kind, a sort of Hefeweizen Summit made possible (or necessary) by a case of misunderstanding possibly motivated by race, and a voracious media preoccupation with the case and its aftermath — a preoccupation certainly motivated by race.

The mainstream media and the blogosphere have been quick to dismiss what might emerge from the grand opening of the Tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue; pol watchers and analysts have already dismissed the very idea of Gates and Crowley being at the White House as a meretricious stunt meant to distract the American people from a stalled health-care reform bill and the woes of the domestic economy.

It could have been a marvelous opportunity for merchandising. It’s been reported that the president will have a Budweiser, and Crowley will sip on a Blue Moon. Gates’ spirit of choice isn’t known right now. It’s a missed bonanza for a Crowley tie-in with Guinness; the baller-in-chief apparently won’t be kicking it with an Old English 800.

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But there’s a basic spirit of fellow feeling behind the idea of such a meeting, a bid for common ground that can’t really be ignored. What the president, Gates and Crowley propose is to tap into the power of the small-group dynamic powered by 16-ounce curls.

What’s planned for Thursday may not be much more than a photo-op, but brief as it’s likely to be, it’s also a distillation (literally and figuratively) of the process of American problem-solving. How many times have we tried to iron out our problems, unburden ourselves, unravel our confusions over a beer at the bar round the way?

We all have a beer (and usually more than one) to take the edge off of modern life and its velocities from time to time (and usually more often than that). Why is it so off the wall to think in terms of a president and two American citizens from either side of the racial divide doing exactly the same thing?

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After a bitter and contentious election season, and any number of ugly acrimonious incidents since then, this country could use some way, some avenue to approach race in America that puts the issue in an accessible context: at corner tables instead of think tanks, trading blue-ribbon panels for Pabst Blue Ribbon.

And why not? Maybe the big racial conversation that hasn’t happened yet — the one we’ve been pretending to long for since the Rodney King riots in 1992 — needs to be something else. Instead of one big, experted, focus-grouped, televised national conversation on race, we need to have a lot of conversations — millions of racial conversations among blacks and whites and Latinos and Asians at hundreds of thousands of bars and restaurants and taverns across the United States.

In ways that no one’s come to grips with yet, the Cold Brew Talks set to convene on Thursday will say as much about us as a nation as about the three men involved, and ultimately far more. Setting aside the kumbaya cosmetics of the moment, there’s a simple elegance about what’s set to happen at the White House, no matter what the outcome is. Almost certainly, Gates and Crowley will agree to disagree. But they’ll do it not in a court of law or on a picket line or testily in the doorway of a man’s own home. They’ll disagree about race with conviction and class, spirit and respect — and they’ll do it over a beer.

There’s a lesson there somehow: If it’s possible to do that at the public’s house in Washington, D.C., you can sure as hell do it at the public house down the street.
Image credits: White House: Happyme22 (public domain). Beer: Jongleur100 (public domain). Outside New Haven bar, March 2008: Ragesoss, republished under GNU Free Documentation License.

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