The election of President Barack Obama certainly was a giant step forward in America’s long struggle with matters of race. But the unprecedented reactions among some policymakers and protesting citizens alike, clearly show that the issue of race is alive and well. Whether it is openly discussed or not, it still remains — uncomfortably — the elephant in the room. While President Obama continues to deny and avoid making race an issue, on talk shows, in coffee shops, bars and barbershops, and around dinner tables across America, it continues be a topic of lively even heated — conversation.
Such conversations beg for unparalleled and, perhaps, painful candor—not just ranting and raving.
As we come face-to-face with the powerful influence of race, it will serve us well to truly look at the history of race and racism in America. We must—if we ever hope to achieve a society where race is a non-issue, where:
When the very question, “Do you think race is a factor?” seems silly.
When the contributions of all Americans are chronicled and commemorated in the same history books.
When the rich, complex and complete American story in all its shame and glory is taught and told in classrooms and living rooms everywhere.
But sadly, today is not that day.
We must acknowledge the role race still plays in American life and engage in constructive, liberating dialogue to minimize, mitigate and ultimately nullify its destructive effect. We must peel away the layers — much like an onion — letting the tears flow, if need be, to get to the heart of things.
While matters of race go beyond blacks and whites, racial tensions between these two groups have been the most visible and visceral, and the most public and polarizing.
Let’s look a little closer at a layer that forms the very core of our beliefs about race and racial differences between blacks and whites—the family unit. This will require an open mind and some painful admissions on everyone’s part about American families — both black and white.
Black and white families in America have traveled different and widely divergent paths. One of privilege. The other of paucity. One is carried forward by a history in which the presence of both parents has been valued and promulgated. The other is burdened by the history of slavery in which the family unit was raped and destroyed; separating mother from father; father from child. One has experienced freedom of movement within society, with automatic acceptance. The other has faced constant rejection, both blatant and subtle.
One has enjoyed a certain level of economic prosperity. The other has too often found itself trapped in a perpetual cycle of poverty. One has benefited from good schools and educational opportunities; the other subjected to persistently sub-standard learning environments. One lives in a neighborhood free of blight and crime; the other constantly plagued by them.
These realities shape our fears, resentments, biases and keep us wondering why that is so.
Why, black folks wonder, do some white teenagers from comfortable neighborhoods build bombs and go on shooting rampages, killing their fellow classmates, teachers and family members. Why, white folks wonder, do some black teenagers sell drugs, rob the elderly, and shoot fellow teenagers for money or a jacket.
Black folks think affirmative action and set-asides are needed to level the playing field. White folks think such measures are reverse discrimination.
And, of course, there are black and white folks who think none of the above. They understand that we all are the sum total of our experience, that begins with and is shaped by the family of which we are a part. There are black and white folks who share an immovable faith in the human will and spirit to overcome adversity and impoverishment. There are black and white folks who fervently believe that some day race will not define how we see each other, or how well we work together to build stronger families, stronger communities and a better America.
While those black and white Americans who hold these beliefs provide a great foundation on which to build and make progress to improve race relations, we still have a very, very long way to go.
And, until more Americans become comfortable with bringing race out of the closet and into the open, we will continue to be plagued by the regressive question, “Do you think race is a factor?”
We hear the perpetual refrain about how future generations should not be saddle with debt we create. Well they should not be imprisoned by the racist attitudes we hold either.