March 22, 2014

Can We Talk About Race?

As a white civil rights lawyer whose clients are predominantly people of color, I find myself confronting a complex web of race and class based issues and realities on a daily basis. Some of these appear obvious to me, while I am surely oblivious to others. However much I find myself thinking about race, class, and our respective places in and views about society, I rarely venture into concrete discussions about them. Sometimes because I am not certain it is my place, and other times to avoid an argument or being misunderstood. I have come to believe that these difficult conversations are not merely helpful, but are necessary.

Bryan Stevenson, the founder at the Equal Justice Institute advocates strenuously that we must seriously examine and confront our racial history. He explains that our refusal, or perhaps our inability, to acknowledge the true nature of slavery, and its aftermath of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and institutional racism, inhibit our ability to overcome existing prejudice and social injustice. In his speech at TED, on EJI's website and Facebook page, and even on the Colbert Report, Stevenson convincingly returns to the theme that our society is fundamentally out of balance, and that we are a fractured society where the less fortunate or disenfranchised are seen as a foreign entity rather than a part of us. This alienation facilitates social divisions and frustrates the reconciliation necessary to eliminate longstanding harmful and divisive viewpoints and unjust policies. In short, we cannot move forward until we admit to where we are and how we came to be here. That our own families may not have arrived here until the 20th century does not relieve us of our duty to inquire or to seek a deeper understanding.

Speaking of deeply ingrained institutional prejudice, as the Raw Story reported today, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division recently released a study encompassing 15 years of data taken from all of the nation’s 97,000 school, which suggests a pattern of race-based inequality that begins far earlier than previously thought. The study indicates that racial distinctions between children are drawn by educators as early as at the preschool level.

It is a complex issue that implicates a wide variety of factors. It would be a gross oversimplification to reduce the statistics to a simple matter of racial bias. At the same time, it is fundamentally obvious that skin color and class matter in this country. Yet, we are often uncomfortable talking about race, particularly its intersection with economic and social justice issues, and so these issues go undiscussed and unresolved. There are moments of racial tension that give rise to brief superficial conversations (see, e.g., the murder of Trayvon Martin and trial of George Zimmerman), but we quickly move on, before we become too uncomfortable.

To be frank, I am not entirely sure where to begin. The DOJ study offers plenty of food for thought and convincingly suggests that we are quite far from where we ought to be. But Stevenson (who I worked for one summer many years ago) seems to be saying that only by acknowledging this reality and the history that gave rise to it, can we can work meaningfully towards a real resolution.

Or, to put it more bluntly, for those of us that care about fostering a more equal society for everyone, it is incumbent upon us to learn our history, and talk openly about where we are and how to best get to where we ought to be.

1 comment:

  1. I, like most white people, am sick and tired of hearing about race from the media, Democratic politicians, race hustlers like Sharpton and Jackson, and celebrities. Move on. The grievance model doesn't work and has never worked.