Let’s talk about…race

*I can’t find the exact statistic, but I read in a parenting book the other day about how few white parents talk openly with their children about race. In our family, it’s a fairly frequent topic, both intentionally on our part and because my oldest son has a real interest in history, which includes slavery and the civil rights movement (his book about Ruby Bridges, who desegregated a school in Louisiana, was an early favorite). He knows that we’ll answer his questions, and he’s learning about our values, too. Talking isn’t going to end racism. But I still think it’s better than a silence that breeds complicity.


I guess that I spend more time thinking about race and racism than most white people. Almost every time I see someone pulled over by a police officer, I hope that it’s not someone being harassed for his/her skin color. In class, I find myself thinking a lot about how I’m including the perspectives of people of color in my social commentary. I try to choose authors and blogs with an eye towards ample representation of voices of color, so that I’m not getting only ‘whitewashed’ news. And I talk about race a fair amount, with students and friends and colleagues and mentors like Lenny.

I would bet, though, that even people who don’t usually think about race much have had a hard time ignoring it over this past year. Slightly more than a year ago, an African-American man was inaugurated as our nation’s President, and people were tripping over themselves declaring that “racism is dead” or some other such clever-sounding, idealistic, and thoroughly nonsensical thing (what, “post-racist” is the new black? Or Black?”). Before the stage was even disassembled, the racist invectives, white nationalist zeal, and thinly-veiled mainstream prejudice seemed to permeate every aspect of our political institutions. It became painfully obvious that, while perhaps slightly wounded in some parts of the country and among some parts of the electorate, racism is anything but dead.

And, so, as I often do, when I am somewhat obsessed about something (my husband is probably glad I’m out of my whole Czarist Russia craze!), I started reading about race. A lot. I read about slave-owning families and the Civil War and slave labor under the Belgian colony and about Reconstruction and Marian Anderson and debt peonage in the post-Civil War South and Dixiecrats and Barry Goldwater and about racial divides in Chicago neighborhoods and the 1964 Freedom Rides and W.E.B. DuBois. I read about Obama himself, the rise of white nationalism, school segregation, anti-racist organizing, unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, and about the connection between race and immigration.

Of course none of that reading held any firm answers to the difficult questions that surround the uniquely pathological relationship that the United States has with race and racism. But I remain convinced that we all need to be a little bit obsessed with racism and its vicious and insidious nature, a little bit overwhelmed by its persistence and wickedness, a little bit maddened by its permutations and sneakiness.

And, so, in an attempt to infect others with the bug by which I was bitten after reading a white nationalist group’s email rejoicing at Obama’s election (because now it would become obvious to all of the apathetic would-be ‘racial patriots’ that Blacks have ‘stepped out of bounds’ and that a full-on ‘racial holy war’ is the only answer) and realizing that they probably WOULD see an uptick in recruitment after the inauguration, here are some of the thoughts that I have been mulling over for the past several months.

If anyone wants additional texts from the informal reading list that I pulled together for myself, just email me or leave a comment. And I’m always looking for new suggested titles, too!

It’s obvious that we can’t legislate love–meaning, in this context, that we can use social policy to regulate people’s behavior but not their attitudes. In the racial justice arena, this means that, for many, when the gains of the civil rights movement meant that African Americans and other people of color had legal claims to the same rights, whites trying to protect their privilege sought other means of social distance through which to insulate it. So, as William Julius Wilson illustrates in There Goes the Neighborhood, when schools were integrated, white families moved to other neighborhoods to keep their children from going to integrated schools. Community development initiatives become little more than dressed-up gentrification, aimed at keeping undesirable (Black) households out. As an obvious believer in the power of social policy, this is particularly vexing. How can those of us not patient enough to wait for slow ‘soul changing’ work win more secure gains in the status of people of color, as long as these techniques for avoidance thrive?

Pervasive throughout much of what I read is a kind of ‘leave it to the children’ approach, a belief that somehow racism is the exclusive purview of previous generations that will slowly die out as those cohorts do. It’s a sad and unfortunately untrue mischaracterization of the motivations for yesterday’s racism and the likelihood of improvement tomorrow. I don’t mean to suggest that we haven’t progressed as a nation within the past few decades. It is undeniable that we have. But I believe that most of that progress is attributable to the courageous and visionary agitation of people of color and their allies, not from some inexorable transcendance of racism. Far from it. At the park one day last fall, as the high school was letting out, my three-year-old asked why all of the Black kids were sitting at one table. Indeed.

Something else that has been thrashing around in my mind a lot is the nexus between class and race. Wilson quotes several Chicagolanders talking about how people of color in their own neighborhoods are ‘fine’ (read: of the same social class), but that their concerns lay with those they deemed deviant. There has been a lot of talk about how we need to learn from the lessons of the New Deal in dealing with today’s recession. And that makes me think about the rampant racial exclusions and accepted double standards that were part of the foundation of our modern social contract. How can race and class ever be untangled?

One of the best points in Wilson’s work, in my opinion, is his analysis of the ways in which the rapid demographic changes in some neighborhoods combined with the decline in traditional collective organizations as the primary mechanism through which people interact with each other. Taken together, they suggest a further decline in interracial contact–think, for example, about your Facebook friends. How often, in that realm, do you have meaningful encounters with those of other races (working together towards common goals, dealing with conflict)? Compare that to the workings of a multiracial labor union, a neighborhood group in a multiracial area, a Parent-Teacher Association in an integrated school. Will more advanced technologies give us better tools with which to excise race and racial difference from our lives?

Perhaps the most stunning sentence from my months of reading on race is this, from Slavery by Another Name: “the prolonged economic inferiority and social subjugation of African Americans that was to be ubiquitous in much of the next century was not a conclusion preordained by the traditions of antebellum slavery” (p. 85). Really, immediately post-Emancipation, there was a tremendous political and practical opportunity to reap significant gains for Blacks in the South. Tremendous. There is, perhaps, no more compelling or more tragic example of the importance of policy implementation than this–that we had a real chance to atone for the deep sin of slavery with a true reconstruction that would create equal opportunities and correct, through policy, for at least much of the harm that had been wrought. Instead, malicious exploitation and malignant neglect combined to destroy those intentions and trap people of color in law and practice that enshrined white nationalism as the operating principle of our social policy.

That same book also reaffirmed my belief in the need for a strong federal government. In today’s context of new federalism and continual denigration of ‘big government’, we can use reminders of the federal government’s decisive triumphs, particularly when it attempted vigorously to defeat racism and racists. It took World War II and the fear of having Jim Crow laws used against it by the fascists to get the U.S. government to move more aggressively to dismantle the many layers of codified discrimination that the mantra of ‘states’ rights’ had preserved.

And, finally, all of this has made me think a lot about “unpacking”–unpacking the stories that we tell ourselves to feel better (that people of color have had since slavery to get ‘caught up’), unpacking our collective responsibility for the oppression of people of color (when it’s clear it was/is systematic, widespread, and intentional, not accidental or incidental), unpacking the ways in which racism continues to injure all of us. And in this case, it’s only in unpacking that we can get somewhere.

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