08/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Teachable Moment

Dominating the news this lazy July week of summer was the arrest of the prominent Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates. Professor Gates teaches undergraduate and graduate courses as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and as Professor of English at Harvard.

Although there have been varying accounts of the story, the gist appears to be that Professor Gates returned from a trip to China and was unable to enter his home. Gates and his driver proceeded to enter the home by a side entrance. A suspicious passerby called the police to report a break in at the residence. The police officers, including Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Massachussets police, who is the subject of dispute with Gates, responded to the call. All that has been agreed upon is that words were exchanged and Gates was arrested outside his home.

What is also agreed upon, and is the most troubling to me, is that Gates was arrested after he submitted identification indicating he resided in the home. But, as with every story there are two sides. Officer Crowley, who is white claims Gates, who is black, was verbally abusive and thus he arrested him for the amorphous crime of being "tumultuous." Gates claims the officer would not identify himself and was abusive.

Leaving aside who is at the most fault, here's my take on the incident: neither side spoke to one another, during the exchange, and neither side understood the language of one another. President Obama made the most salient and provocative statement about the incident in his recent press conference; specifically, that it should translate into a "Teachable Moment." To me that means the moment when we learn to talk to one another and not simply at-- or about one another through the prison glass of our great cultural and ethnic divides.

In 1994, 8 men of various racial and ethnic groups attended a racial dialog retreat in California, (the retreat featured only men so as not to confuse the dynamic of men/women relationships). Facilitator, filmmaker/community therapist Lee Mun Wah, created a powerful documentary of this retreat entitled "The Color of Fear,", which dealt with racism from many points of view, specifically: African American, Asian, Hispanic. The film starts off by defining what it means to be an American. Interestingly, it becomes immediately clear that each of the men, have a different perspective on the term, " Being American." However, as the retreat progresses, the participants seem to grow and to listen to one another as they explore racial perceptions in America. The retreat is most powerful to me, and it is the type of dialog we need in this country if we are ever to end this racial chasm. It can be found on parts 1-5 or 6

As indicated, from my perspective, Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates spoke different languages in that moment in time in the house of Dr. Gates. Gates spoke the language of history, oppression, and racial profiling. Crowley spoke the language of enforcement, protection of citizens, duty, and power. The election of President Obama is not going to end racism alone. I would advocate we use this teachable moment, and hold a series of townhall retreats, which are open and honest as in the "Color of Fear." Maybe then, we can--- even through our diversity of thought, culture, and language-- speak one language of America.