Monday, March 24, 2008

Ruby Slippers and Race In America

An editorial in the New York Times today has an excellent illustration of a common school of thought regarding race in contemporary America, "We Don't Need to Talk About It.":

"The only part of the speech that made me shudder was this sentence: “But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.”

As soon as I heard that, I knew what we’d have to endure. I knew that there would be a stampede of editorial boards, columnists and academics rushing not to ignore race. A national conversation about race! At long last!

Of course, memories are short. In 1997 President Bill Clinton announced, with great fanfare, that he intended “to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented [if he did say so himself] conversation about race.” That conversation quickly went nowhere. And just as well.

The last thing we need now is a heated national conversation about race.

What we need instead are sober, results-oriented debates about economics, social mobility, education, family policy and the like — focused especially on how to help those who are struggling. Such policy debates can lead to real change — even “change we can believe in.” “National conversations” tend to be pointless and result-less.

Or worse. Especially when they’re about race. In 1969, Pat Moynihan, then serving on Richard Nixon’s White House staff, wrote Nixon a memo explaining that “the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about. ... We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.” Moynihan, who was reacting against the wild escalation of racial rhetoric on all sides, was unfairly pilloried when the memo was leaked in 1970. But he was right then, and his argument is right now.

Racial progress has in fact continued in America. A new national conversation about race isn’t necessary to end what Obama calls the “racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years” — because we’re not stuck in such a stalemate. In fact, as Obama himself suggests in the same speech, younger Americans aren’t stalemated. They come far closer than their grandparents and parents to routinely obeying Martin Luther King’s injunction to judge one another by the content of our character, not the color of our skin."" Read the whole thing.

There are several problems with the line of reasoning in this editorial. First the author, like many people believes that "racial progress" is measured by personal attitudes rather than structural equality. Essentially if people of different races like each other more than they used to then things must be better. If you read my last post, you know that even on a psychological level things are more complex than that. Of course the problem of race has never been just in our heads, it's reflected in policies and practices that perpetuate the privilege of some and the deprivation of others based on race and ethnicity (among other things). Many of these policies and practices reflect unconscious bias rather than intentional discrimination or simply a failure to connect the dots regarding their impact in a racialized society. For example, I imagine that few car manufacturers wake up every morning consciously plotting to create vehicles that destroy the environment. Yet when we talk about green house gases, we don't care what their intentions were, it's about the outcome of the way they conduct their business. It's the same thing when we are discussing racial/ethnic inequality, it's not about intentions or attitudes it's about the outcome of the decisions that those with power are making.

Another problem is that the author creates a false dichotomy between "sober, results-oriented debates about economics, social mobility, education, family policy and the like — focused especially on how to help those who are struggling" and "race talk". I would love to have the kind of debate that he is describing, but that should include the issue of racial/ethnic inequality and what our nation intends to do to correct it. I agree that much race talk is symbolic, emotion-focused and pointless in our society (i.e., endless race dialogues, diversity traings, MLK breakfasts etc.). However it is not a question of whether we should or should not talk about race, it is a question of "how" we talk about race and more importantly what we actually "do" about race.

Ultimately this "we don't need to discuss it" perspective springs from the view that our race problem is really just in our heads. It reminds me of Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz. After all her struggles and battles along the yellow brick road, it turned out that all she had to do was click her heals together and say "there's no place like home" over and over. This is what the "we can wish our way out of race" crowd believes. All we have to do is click our heals together and say "there's no place like America without race" over and over and then it will be true. But it's not true, it's never been that easy. After some two centuries of blood, sweat and tears to get us closer to racial/ethnic equality, we should know better. 'Abdu'l-Baha's comments on the importance of action are worth a read:

"What profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated into the world of action, they are useless. The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice. If actions took the place of words, the world's misery would very soon be changed into comfort. My hope for you is that you will ever avoid tyranny and oppression; that you will work without ceasing till justice reigns in every land, that you will keep your hearts pure and your hands free from unrighteousness. This is what the near approach to God requires from you, and this is what I expect of you."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 16)

Correction: When I first posted this piece I said that the speech by Senator Obama implied we could wish our way out of race/racism. Having read the speech in detail, I've revised that viewpoint.