Do We Need to Talk about Race?

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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Attorney General Eric Holder makes a number of interesting points in his remarks on Black History Month. Ultimately, though, I am always sour on the idea of conversations on race. The call to "have a conversation about race" is really a call to discuss why is there racial inequality in America. For Holder, it is specifically a question about black social and economic disadvantage.

I'm not convinced that many Americans know enough of the facts around black inequality to have a useful discussion. I've been pointing out, for example, that few of the leading black public intellectuals even know the basic facts about black poverty. For example, in his recent book, Juan Williams states, “too many poor and low-income black people are not taking advantage of opportunities to get themselves out of poverty,” in complete ignorance of the historic decline in black poverty over the 1990s. I think that most of the discussions that Williams' work has engendered has been harmful to black people.

I much prefer Holder's call for Americans to study black history. I would add that we also need to study the black present. If we could have discussions within and after some serious study of the issues that would be better.

Holder's remarks were greeted with hostility by many. This development is not completely surprising. The racial "conversations" in the online commentary to articles on racial inequality that I have noticed have often been hostile and at times blatantly racist. This fact reveals another problem with the "talk about race" idea.

People assume that if people talk honestly about racial inequality they will be able to come to a shared understanding and a happy compromise about the issues. They do not imagine a situation where everyone becomes more narrow-minded and hateful. But this alternative is certainly a possibility.

DuBois once phrased the question of black disadvantage as "How does it feel to be a problem?" pointing out how that question can be hurtful and inspire defensiveness. And the reversal of the question is "How does it feel to be an oppressor?" This question does not put whites at ease either. There is a reason people are avoiding the discussions Holder is calling for. These discussions can go wrong easily.

A better approach would be to try to have discussions about solutions to the causes of black inequality. For example, Holder mentions that racial relations have changed since the Brown decision. He should have also mentioned that our schools, however, are still separate and unequal. I wish that he had called for not an open discussion on "race" but for a discussion about what can be done to make our schools more integrated and equal. Even this discussion could go bad quickly, but I think the odds of it being productive are higher than a random open discussion.

We do need to have discussions on racial inequality to end racial inequality, but it is a minefield. People engaging in these discussions need to educate themselves and proceed with empathy and caution.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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