The following op-ed “Race and Reality in a Front-Porch Encounter” by HLS Professor Lani Guinier appeared in the July 30, 2009 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I applaud President Obama’s invitation to Professor Skip Gates and Sgt. Jim Crowley to continue the “conversation” they ostensibly began on a porch in Cambridge, Mass., with Gates’s arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct.

Truth be told, however, the Gates-Crowley encounter did not begin on that porch. Nor will it will end at a White House talkfest, even in an atmosphere leavened by beer. And much more was at play than a conflict about deference or duty.

In fact, the alleged “loud” and “tumultuous” tone of Gates’s voice, and the clanging of the cuffs on his wrists, were the sounds of two different versions of our racial history colliding with our collective amnesia about that history.

In version one, the white cop is the racist. Here, Gates and Crowley were playing out roles assigned to them circa 1963 and little changed since. This version transforms the decorated diversity-training sergeant into a stand-in for the vicious white cops with the police dogs and fire hoses who attacked innocent black children marching for their rights in Birmingham, Ala. The esteemed black professor is an updated stand-in for James Meredith, a black man in Mississippi in 1962 asserting his well-earned place in a citadel of knowledge while a white mob gathers to taunt him.

Contrast version two of race in America: Here it is Gates who is the racist. In response to the officer’s polite request to show identification in his own home, Gates exploded, shouting and yelling that the sergeant was a racist. In this account, Gates, and he alone, racialized the encounter. He escalated a routine procedure into an international publicity stunt when he exclaimed, according to a police report written in all caps, “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO BLACK MEN IN AMERICA.”

In both of those iconic portraits, the solution is simple. In version one, we should “out” the racist cop. In version two, we should simply shut down the use of the “r” word, except as it applies to people of color who apparently have yet to get the memo. Neither of the accounts tells the whole story; each freezes both men in a snapshot of history that is more than 40 years old. As one blog post put the dual and dueling challenges—”Obama stepped in it big time with this as many people voted for him hoping a black man in the White House would finally put to bed our racial problems.”

Of course, President Obama’s election did not put our racial problems to bed. Nonetheless, he is in a unique position to engage the country in a thorough vetting of the multiple ways that race still interacts with gender and class and power in our society as whole. Given its worldwide resonance in the blogosphere and on the front pages of foreign as well as American newspapers, the Cambridge porch encounter cries out for more than a simple politically opportune snapshot.

It is time, in other words, for both versions of the Gates-Crowley encounter to move beyond the 1963 lock on our imagination. Sergeant Crowley is not a virulent Bull Connor. Nor is Professor Gates merely an elegant and more internationally savvy adaptation of a quietly suffering James Meredith. Both of the stock versions of what happened on the Cambridge porch in 2009 are incomplete caricatures.

What might we learn instead about contemporary race matters if we could move beyond the stock stories?

First, history does matter. The undisputed historical backdrop for the porch encounter includes 240 years of chattel slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and 400-plus years of intergenerational wealth transfer during most of which time black people not only owned little property—they were property. In roughly 50 of the first 72 years of our country’s first century, the presidents of the United States themselves owned slaves. In the infamous Dred Scott case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that a black man had no rights that a white man need respect, five of the justices were from slaveholding families.

Many self-declared “postracialists” who assume that black poverty is a function of laziness or lack of personal responsibility ignore history’s important legacy in the form of a systemic process still at work. But as William A. “Sandy” Darity, a professor of public policy, African and African-American studies, and economics at Duke University, has reminded us (most recently in an unpublished article written with Darrick Hamilton, an assistant professor at Milano the New School for Management and Urban Policy), black people and Latinos still suffer from crushing gaps in wealth that are intergenerational, not personal, and which, in comparison to the white population, are truly mind-boggling. Darity has pointed out, for example, that, according to 2002 data, the median white household has a net worth of $90,000, Latino households have a net worth of only $8,000, and black households a mere $6,000. Black people with a net worth of $6,000 “would have to save 100 percent of their income for three consecutive years,” Darity says, to close the racial wealth gap, a gap that is the direct result of having been property for some 240 years and having been denied, in so many cases, the opportunity to own property for close to 100 years thereafter.

Neighborhood poverty then cements the historic wealth gap. Continuing racial segregation—which isolates both middle-class and poor black people in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods—reinforces the gap. Even now, the children of middle-class black parents who have good jobs but live in poor neighborhoods experience downward economic mobility, through no fault of their own. According to a just-released study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, neighborhood poverty outweighed parents’ education, employment, or marital status in explaining increases in black poverty. The study found that black children born between 1985 and 2000 are 10 times as likely than white children to grow up in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent. The same study found that half of black children born between 1955 and 1970 in middle-class families (those with incomes of $62,000 or higher in today’s dollars) grew up in high-poverty neighborhoods, while almost no white middle-income children grew up in poor areas.

That finding is important, because it is the physical association between black people and poverty that contributes to cognitive assumptions about black criminality, and which results in the disproportionate attention that black males of all income levels receive from the police. As Glenn C. Loury, a professor of economics and social science at Brown University, recently wrote in a New York Times opinion essay, our policy of mass incarceration is having a range of “negative and self-defeating” effects on communities where large numbers of young black and Hispanic men live.

Second, we need to become racially literate, not postracially blind. Racial literacy is the capacity to conjugate the grammar of race in different contexts and circumstances. Like the verb “to be,” race takes a different form when we speak about “I am” versus “you are” compared with “he is.” In other words, race still matters at a psychic, economic, and sociological level for people of color, even for those who are middle class or multiracial. It may not reveal itself through the spewed invective of a Bull Connor. It is less overt but nonetheless real. It is sometimes a virulent subtext, at other times a nuanced dynamic. But always the meaning of race needs to be interrogated and conjugated carefully in light of relevant local circumstances and their historic underpinnings.

All Americans, not just people of color, need to be better schooled in the subtle yet complex ways that race actually works in the 21st century. Racial literacy requires familiarity with unconscious bias as well as structural racism. It demands a far more nuanced approach than typical charges of racism or race-carding.

To understand what happened on that Cambridge porch, we must free ourselves of the stereotype that racism is always overt—a police officer with a dog and a fire hose. Race and racism are today more like passive smoke. We all inhale the toxic fumes even if we are not the one lighting up the cigarette. And if we take the time to lift the curtain that postracialists insist on pulling over our eyes, we might begin to realize that a porch encounter ostensibly about racial profiling is nevertheless a sign of larger and more systemwide injustices.

Racial literacy would help all of us understand that behind the two force fields competing for respect on that Cambridge porch is a criminal-justice system that exercises outsized control as the major urban-policy instrument for controlling the poor. We have focused our resources disproportionately on policing and criminalizing the poor. As a result, we have too often put our police officers into the positions of legislators, prosecutors, judges, and juries—positions for which they are not qualified and that they should not be expected to fulfill—even in well-to-do neighborhoods like the one in Cambridge.

At the same time, if we read race carefully, we might learn that the conditions of profiling in the criminal-justice system affect blacks and Latinos first and most acutely, but that the same overreliance on the system as our major instrument of urban policy can disempower poor and working-class white people as well. Here I am referring to the fact that the school-to-prison pipeline for young black men affects poor rural white men as well. The lack of a robust economic-stimulus program to combat depression-level unemployment within the black community also affects rising unemployment within many predominantly white counties in the Midwest. Or consider the higher rates of life-threatening conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks among black and Latino men—which are actually a signal that we need to pay more attention to the health-care crisis that is exacerbated by the anger, hopelessness, and diet in poor urban and rural communities around the country. And while close to one-third of black households have no or a negative net worth, Darity points out that the same is true for 13 percent of white households.

The point of an effort to gain greater racial literacy is not simply to figure out what each man should or could have done differently to de-escalate the porch summit. The point is to explore their encounter as a potent learning moment for the entire country. If we learn to “read race” in context and become more racially literate, we might finally start deliberating about the underlying structural problems and historical challenges raised to consciousness by this porch scene. And rather than assign blame or settle for a photo opportunity, we might just come together to address an American legacy that affects us all.