Saturday, July 25, 2009


Commentary by Philip Cunningham

Looking at the world through the prism of race is something of an American obsession, one that other countries would be wise not to emulate.

The brouhaha over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley has been marketed from the start as a story about race, which says much about how the American media works and how it feeds off predictable fault-lines in America’s racially fractured society.

But the instant freeze-framing of an ambiguous incident in racial terms, be it a trivial scuffle on a tree-lined street abutting an Ivy League campus or the more serious "racial" tensions that wrack the world, --the most recent manifestation being the deadly rioting in Xinjiang-- serves to obscure rather than elucidate and can end up shedding more heat than light.

Taking sides in a race conflict is a patterned reflex, stoked by the media inculcation. The public takes cues from way the media frames a case to posit good and bad, or in the case of more incendiary dust-ups, to feed the flames of identity politics.

That’s not to say there aren’t cases in which the examination of racial antagonisms, real and perceived, is ultimately necessary to get at the root of a problem, but race, scientifically baseless concept that it is, makes for a very bad starting point of inquiry.