Posted on April 29, 2009

Analyzing Race and Its Complexities

Michael Rabbit, Chicago Tribune, April 27, 2009

I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in St. Louis. I read “Black Like Me,” by John Howard Griffin, in high school. Still, I didn’t always think too much about how life was different for African Americans. As an adult, I moved into different neighborhoods that weren’t as diverse as where I grew up. So I felt a need to reconnect with people of other races. I found a great opportunity through the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, which began workshops on racism several years ago for its parishes after Lenard Clark, a black child, was brutally beaten by white assailants and the case made national news.

Through attending these workshops, I began to learn more about the black experience in America through peoples’ stories. This fed my desire to continue learning and become more active on the topic of racial equality. I became more aware of how important it is to understand history and the role of race in society.

I realized that whites, in general, have the privilege of choosing whether to be “color conscious.” White people can go through life blissfully ignorant of their race, and talk about being “colorblind,” while people of color (particularly African-Americans) are reminded of their color (often unfavorably) through their daily life experiences. For African-Americans, being conscious of color is an everyday reality. This powerful quote from author Robert Terry seems to sum it up: “To be white in America is not to have to think about it.”

I often hear people say, in a very well meaning way, “I don’t see color.” What they are actually saying is that they don’t see a person’s history, culture, and experiences. “Colorblindness” not only means supporting the status quo of the “default” white view of the world, but the existing white institutional control of power and privilege as well. In effect, people of color are asked to release their racial identity, and adapt to the white norm.

If we ignore racial and ethnic identity, then we perpetuate the status quo, in which racism is built into our structures. The colorblind approach also perpetuates the false belief that racism is no longer a problem. The wide racial gaps in education, employment, income, wealth, health, and housing, along with the persistent bias in the justice system, make a mockery of pronouncements that the “dream” has been realized and that America is now “post-racial.”

Consider this number: 537–it’s the approximate number of years the Institute for Policy Studies estimates that it will take for blacks to reach income equality with whites if the income gap continues to close at the same rate it has since 1968.

The legacy and impacts of slavery, segregation, unequal education, and housing discrimination lingers. Yet when these disparities and other examples of racial injustice are brought to light by leaders in the black community, the knee-jerk reaction too often is that the race card is being used. That may be the case in some instances, but typically not. It would help matters for us to get better at discerning the difference.

We also spend too much time talking about whether someone is “racist” and not enough time talking about institutional racism and white privilege. Racism is too often defined as individual acts of prejudice instead of something that is really much more complex and systemic.

Racism is a social system in which the power of one race dominates and oppresses other races, and in America that power for the most part remains in white hands, Barack Obama’s historic election as President notwithstanding. But the conversation that we now engage in too often is simplistic. It’s time to analyze race within the context of history and data, instead of fear and stereotypes, and try to reach people who are open to a deeper understanding of racial issues.

This is not about race-baiting, political correctness, guilt or blame, as is so often alleged when people engage in conversations about race. It’s our moral responsibility, and not just for people of color. Indeed, confronting and eliminating racism is everyone’s responsibility.