July 2010, Week 5


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Fri, 30 Jul 2010 22:47:09 -0400
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Where Race Isn't Off-Limits

     Americans don't know how to talk about race
     because they only do it when they absolutely have

Jamelle Bouie |
July 30, 2010 |
American Prospect web only

In the aftermath of high-profile racial incidents
(Shirley Sherrod, Henry Louis Gates, heck, the election
of Barack Obama), mainstream pundits and writers have
wondered aloud about the country's inability to talk
sensibly about race. Perhaps most representative of
this confusion was Matt Bai's lament in The New York
Times: "Why haven't we moved beyond the old,
stultifying debate in the age of Obama?"

Here is my guess.

As Americans, we insist on treating race as its own
"thing" to be separately dealt with. Instead of a
continuing dialogue, we have the occasional forum for
grievance inspired by the controversy du jour. Indeed,
it's safe to say that we only ever talk about race when
it's impossible not to: in 2008, when the presidential
election brought Jeremiah Wright into the spotlight;
last year, when President Obama nominated Sonia
Sotomayor to the Supreme Court; and again, when Harvard
professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his
Cambridge home. At each point, race rushed into public
view, vanishing as soon as the public lost interest in
the story.

Of course, you can't treat race as a box to be checked
off. Not only is race a crucial part of American
identity; it's impossible to talk about policy in this
country without also, somewhere, mentioning race.
Indeed, to talk about race as if it were some "thing"
apart is to deny the central role it plays in nearly
every aspect of American life.

In short, the problem with our "national conversation
on race" is that we refuse to acknowledge race as a
basic fact of American life. We bury our heads in the
sand and pretend to live in a country where there isn't
systemic, institutionalized racism and where talking
about race is somehow counterproductive to governing.

So, to answer Bai's question, we'll finally move beyond
those old, stultifying debates, when we learn to
integrate race into our normal discussions of policy
and focus on the substantive questions that make race
an incredibly pressing concern.

Take financial reform: African American and Hispanic
communities were devastated by the foreclosure crisis
and subsequent recession. According to the Center for
Responsible Lending, 7.9 percent of African Americans
and 7.7 percent of Hispanics who were new owners or had
newly refinanced lost their homes to foreclosure
between 2007 and 2009. By contrast, only 4.5 percent of
whites suffered similarly. And that's to say nothing of
the fact that the recession has all but wiped out
recent wealth gains made by blacks, greatly
exacerbating the wealth gap between African Americans
and their white counterparts. According to a recent
report by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at
Brandeis University, median wealth holdings among high-
income African Americans dropped to less than half of
those for middle-income whites.

Or take health-care reform, which dominated the
national conversation for almost a year. Countless
studies have documented the stark disparities in access
and treatment for minorities; according to a 2008
report by the Office of Minority Health, the
"uninsurance rate" was 19.5 percent for African
Americans and 32.1 percent for Hispanics. For whites,
that rate was 10.4 percent. In 2005, African American
adults were twice as likely as white adults to have
been diagnosed with diabetes, and 2.2 times as likely
to die from it. The American Cancer Society has found
that for most cancers, blacks are diagnosed at advanced
stages, and that HIV/AIDS continues to be one of the
leading causes of death for young African Americans.

In a world where race is part of each discussion, these
facts would be out in the open. During congressional
hearings, questioners would -- in addition to
everything else -- ask about the effect of proposed
legislation on minority communities. Legislators would
be aware of the unique circumstances faced by
historically disenfranchised minorities, and seeking
legislative ways to alleviate disparate effects
wouldn't be beyond the pale.

In fact, given how race permeates nearly everything,
you can easily imagine race playing out with every
issue that enters public discussion: Our discussion of
unemployment insurance would include regular reference
to the fact of 15.4 percent joblessness among African
Americans (compared to 8.6 percent for whites). Our
discussion of housing policy would make specific
reference to the isolated, hyper-segregated
neighborhoods of the inner city, and our discussion of
crime would spark a broader conversation on the
staggeringly high numbers of black and Hispanic men in

None of this is to say that we would avoid racial
controversies. Rather, as is the case with everything,
practice makes perfect. The more we can talk about race
in a substantive context, the more comfortably we can
talk about race, period. Indeed, by regularly engaging
with race, and on matters of policy especially, we can
train ourselves to move beyond the typical arguments --
"This is racist! No it isn't!" -- and toward a more
nuanced discussion of racial issues.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat idealized vision of the
national conversation -- Americans have never been
particularly enthusiastic about race or policy -- but
it gives us something to aim for: an America where race
isn't off-limits or restricted to certain times of the
year but always part of our dialogue.


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