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Why race still matters in America

Thursday, March 27, 2008 | 11:49 a.m. CDT; updated 5:56 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It has been nearly a week since Barack Obama gave his speech about race in America, and I can already feel the nation’s focus on race starting to slip away. Many have interpreted the speech through the lens of campaign tactics: “Was Obama successful in getting the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his incendiary comments off the front page?” And yet, in our hopes to embrace a post-racial politics, we may miss the very discussion on race that remains essential to our society and politics.

Let me start by saying that I do not believe a so-called “national conversation” on race is the way to go, if that means a repeat of former President Clinton’s effort on this matter. Remember the national commission he appointed, which soon became embroiled in endless issues about its focus? That initiative had all the negative trappings of a high-falutin’ blue-ribbon panel: formal hearings with far more posturing than conversation. After a much ballyhooed launch, the commission landed with a thud.

Nor am I ready to believe that any “new and improved” national conversation will be enough to really move the nation forward. My fear is that any such effort will be too far removed from the realities of people’s daily lives. Instead I worry it will become entangled with program staff, organizational charts, endless strategy sessions, with little real engagement taking place between and among citizens. Indeed, such efforts can miss the larger point: our engagement must start where we live, in our communities, with people we can see and hear and feel, where we can hold each other accountable for what we say and do. Otherwise, the discussion can become an abstract endeavor, with success gauged by the number of participating cities, the number of people in attendance at public forums or who participate in online discussions, the number of press clippings garnered, instead of something rooted in people’s real experiences and emotions. Relevance and meaning can too easily become the victim of good intentions.

Just last week I was reminded again of the true nature of the engagement we need on race in America, when I led our Public Innovators Lab in Baltimore, where more than 40 public innovators from community groups, national foundations, public broadcasting stations (radio and TV), school systems and city government were present. In one of the small groups, the discussion turned to race. (Indeed, wherever I go, I find that the conversation often turns to race; it is a topic that begs to be discussed among people throughout our society.)

I have found that there are a number of keys to moving the “race discussion” forward. In suggesting them, I do not pretend to hold “the answer” to this dilemma, but I do believe progress is possible, and here are just a handful of insights that I believe warrant our attention:

1. We must know that the topic of race itself brings to the fore different questions for different groups in society. For instance, most whites I have encountered want to talk about “race relations,” where the basic thrust is, “Can’t we all get along better?”; while many blacks want to focus on “racism,” seeking to address fundamental, underlying questions of past transgressions and prejudice in society. These are two different conversations, which we will need to air out and ultimately bridge if any progress is to be made. But let’s be clear: the latter conversation is much more difficult to hold, and will require both courage and humility on everyone’s part to step forward and listen, and to engage with others on matters that will test our resolve and ability to stay at the table.

2. After some discussion, many whites often say something like, “Can’t we move on now?” Indeed, in Tuesday’s Washington Post, a man, sympathetic to Obama’s speech, was quoted in a follow-up article to the speech saying, “We need to get over it.” Meanwhile, many blacks want to work through issues from present and past, not simply mention them, talk for a bit, and then move on. Time is of the essence here: In our desire to embrace a post-racial politics, we must not seek to move on too quickly, and risk undermining the very goals of engagement we purport to hold dear. Indeed, we must not seek to smooth over real differences, or even merely come to “respect” them, but to understand and live with them, even embrace them.

3. Not everyone is ready for this conversation. A national conversation that seeks to engage everyone, everywhere is a fantasy that will only leave us disappointed and defeated. We must find people who are ready to engage and who know that it will be difficult at times, but who nonetheless are prepared to step forward. I believe that it is important to find both whites and blacks who want to engage together, and who are willing to stay at the table and not retreat in fear when their conversations hit rough spots, which they inevitably will.

4. It is important to actually do something together (the size and scope of the action does not matter as much as the action itself), because conversation alone cannot create the bonds of trust and relationships that we need. Deeper connections will emerge only by rubbing shoulders and finding solutions together to common challenges, demonstrating to ourselves and others that progress is possible.

5. We must be open to engaging in a space riddled by ambiguity, which this conversation surely is. Real differences exist; but so too do common aspirations and hopes. We must be willing to engage in discovering both, which will require genuine give and take, even a fair number of false starts in our attempts to move ahead. In situations like these, we must guard against settling for naive pronouncements about “Can’t we all just get along,” and understand the very ideals upon which this nation was founded, such as “All men are created equal” and “Freedom for all,” and find ways to make them real today.

6. We must reconcile ourselves to the fact that our engagement on race will require us not simply to be uncomfortable, but that real pain exists. We cannot simply gloss over such pain, or appropriate it by trying to “identify” with one another or to “hold” one another’s pain; instead, we must seek to genuinely hear one another and to understand to the best of our abilities the pain that does exist. Let us know that this will not be easy.

Now, I know that some people will write back to me because I have framed my thoughts in black/white terms, and that I have not taken into account gender or various ethnicities here. Please know that I recognize this shortcoming and that I welcome such comments.

Still, my point here is not to offer a solution for all ills in society, but rather to make this central point: We need a discussion on race in America, and let us not fall prey to ginning up some national conversation machine that becomes nothing more than empty talk. Rather, let us focus our efforts on a genuine, deep engagement where we live, where we can see and hear and feel one another, where it is possible to stay at the table together over time, and where we can make a real difference.

Richard C. Harwood is founder and president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Click here to read his blog.


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