In humble attempt at casting this in the tradition of Socrates, a (slightly altered) quote:

"The unexamined vote is not worth casting."

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Racism, as American as Apple Pie

Jena, Louisiana, site of the" Jena Six"-related racial issues in 2007.

"The 1968 Kerner Commission conclusion that racism is deeply embedded in the American society is still true. Racism is still as American as apple pie in this area. The existing huge disparities by race could not exist without racism."

-Detroit citizen, Karl Gregory, at recent hearing on race

As I wrote about previously, I was moved by Obama’s recent speech on racism. Did I think it would catalyze a national discussion of any substance though? Of that, I was less sure. What I realize now, is that I just wasn’t sure what we’d be talking about if there was such a “national discussion.” What I was lacking, I realize, is a framework—a framework of what exactly the racial problems of our day are, what they have been, and what solutions have been attempted over the years. If a national discussion is to happen—and I am convinced now that it should somehow—then surely we must have information with which to productively talk about race. Without such information, people will lack buy-in—they will know in their bones that something is wrong, but will lack the facts of both the problems and the potential solutions. This risks emotional starts to conversations—and initiatives—that will quickly fizzle out because of lack of facts.

What am I going on about? Education. This is what struck those who listened to Obama’s speech: he educated us, in ways, about specific problems related to skin color, teaching whites about black issues, and vice versa (something he is well equipped to do, given his mixed background and related experiences in the worlds of both blacks and whites). With his specifics, he set an example, I believe, for the type of substance that should characterize any “national discussions” that might occur.

For example, he shared some of the following (well-balanced) specifics:

“So when [whites are] are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.”

But he goes on, discussing specific actions that could be taken:

“In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.”

The rest of this post focuses mainly on more specifics of race-related problems, as well as potential ways to approach solutions, but an important sidenote: I heard the author Susan Jacoby talk recently about how we need an “Educator in Chief” badly in the US, who will take the time to talk with the American people about issues, educating them about why something is a problem, and I think Obama’s speech is a good sign that he may just be such an Educator in Chief. The great video of Jacoby’s discussion on this can be watched here.

The reason I realized I was lacking the type of specific information I mentioned above, or a “framework” as I called it, is because last night's episode of what has become my favorite weekly show, “Bill Moyers Journal,” was on these issues. Bill Moyers has much to say about, well, a lot, so I would encourage any unacquainted readers to delve into some of his weekly shows, the archives of which are available in video form on his website, His show last night did something that we rarely do though, it considered history—where we were in the past with race-related issues, and the all-important question of whether we have advanced. The conclusion was grim, in large part.

The first part of the show focused on the race riots of 1967—primarily those in Detroit, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey, although apparently “126 cities were hit by racial violence [that year], with 75 incidents classified as major riots (emphasis added).” President Lyndon Johnson responded by forming the “Kerner Commission,” with the intent of understanding and dealing with the underlying problems. The Commission surprised many by finding that the riots were not planned (by those such as the Black Panthers or others), but grew in large part out of “white racism”: “[W]hat white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that the white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it. White institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” In the show, Moyers goes on to talk with one of the few members of the Commission still alive, highlighting how many of the recommendations of the Commission were not realized, and remain with us today.

To keep with the theme of forming a framework with which to consider race, I’ll review some quotes from the show that helped me realize how devastatingly real a factor race still is in our country. The following are a few of those quotes, all taken from a forum in Detroit on race-related issues (clips from the forum were included in the show):

DR. HERBERT SMITHERMAN: "In 1970, the infant mortality rate, that is our babies dying before age of one, was about 65 percent higher in the black community than in the white community. Currently, it's 205 percent higher in the black community than in the white community."

GEORGE GALSTER: "The City of Detroit constitutes 85 percent black residents, only nine percent white residents. The poverty rate—white, it's only 5.9 percent, blacks: 24 percent. The median family income—for whites, over $65,000, for blacks, only $37,000. We could go on and on, but, it's very clear that there are these measurable distinctions between blacks and whites in metro Detroit."

ROY LEVY WILLIAMS: "The one industry which has flourished [in Detroit] is the prison industry. And, yes, it has become an industry. During the last 15 years, this state has been averaging one brand new prison a year."

One other gentleman who spoke at the forum, Dr. Herbert Smitherman, discussed the question of what we can do about these issues:

“When we had 9/11, we were arguing about Social Security reform. Where are we gonna find the money for it? And within 48 hours after 9/11, we found $40 billion for New York City, a billion dollars an hour. When we want to do something as a country, we do it. This is not about can we do. This is about a will. This is about do we want to do. When you start saying I'm gonna have cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, cuts to housing in urban development, no subsidies to mass transit, eliminate funding for job training, cut school lunch programs for inner city children, eliminate school loan programs for minority students, repeal after-school programs. What I'm saying is this is about public policy. This is about resource implementation.”

Those numbers don't even take into account the $11 billion we find to fund the war in Iraq each month.

In the second-half of the show, Moyers has a discussion with the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker. Booker, a 38-year old Yale Law graduate, comes across as an inspired pragmatist in his approach to questions of race in the city. At one point, he moved from the suburbs surrounding Newark, right into the projects for eight years. As mayor, he brought the murder rate down 70 percent, and implemented difficult, but important reforms and policies. What he said that really cut to the heart of matters though, was that the changes we need do not start with policy, but attitude. He talked about how we know past generations struggled to start this country, to move it past slavery, past a Civil War and much inequality, but that we falter with our current problems because we think the work is done—i.e., that there is not work for us to do in perfecting our union, as there was for our forefathers. Watch the show, and you will see that that just is not so and, hopefully, moved as I was to consider the very real ways we can be involved in sacrificing our comfort for the larger good.

The video of the show is below, and I would implore any who wonder about the depth of this issue, and the seemingly abstract question of how to address it, to take 60 minutes to watch. We have time for many things in America, but somehow have been confused into thinking that our time is best spent serving ourselves. I find this to be a damning truth that grows out of what I mentioned above, that sense that there is not work left to be done. I mention it again because I don’t think it simply describes a handful of us, but so many in America—myself included. This is some of what I believe Obama speaks to when he encourages us to think of ourselves as our “brother’s or sister’s keeper.” And this is what Moyers’ show last night cut to the heart of, asking, as Smitherman did above, do we have the will to reach outside of ourselves, again and again, working to change these problems that plague our country (and our world, for that matter)?

Part 1, on the Kerner Commission, with former Senator Fred Harris:

Part 2, on racism today, and solutions for today, with Newark Mayor Cory Booker:

As the 40th remembrance of Martin Luther King's assassination comes and goes (April 4th), here's a great piece describing his final days, along with his measured, peaceful approach to change. In it, David Brooks of the New York Times, an admitted conservative, makes an interesting observation: "If Barack Obama’s presidential campaign represents anything, it is the triumph of King’s early-60s style of activism over the angry and reckless late-60s style." It's a brief piece, and worth the read.

Update 2: Good piece in Congressional Quarterly on what they call the "generation gap on racial politics."

Update 3: A helpful reminder in a recent Washington Post piece of how some are still blatantly rejecting Obama because of race.

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