Experts: Time for a New Dialogue on Race

A diverse group of national leaders gathered on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday to establish a new direction and tone for a more relevant dialogue on race in the U.S. The symposium was set to identify trends and determinants of racial disparities, develop consensus on policy needs and chart a racial agenda for 2010 and beyond.

Today’s post-civil rights conversation about race is critical and significantly different from the past, said a panel during “The State of Race in 2010: Defining a New Dialogue” session. They pointed to the election of President Barack Obama as igniting new discussions as ethnicity, color and religion were prominent factors in the election.   

Panelists, who included policymakers, scholars, media experts and nonprofit and corporate leaders, noted that racism today is more complex. In the past, groups rallied around issues like segregation that they opposed. Now, the discussion about racism is being reshaped and extends further to changing mindsets as well as legislation.

“People have had the wrong definition of racism, which has resulted in people feeling that if I don’t hold it in my heart, then I don’t have to do anything,” said Rinku Sen, president and executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and publisher of ColorLines magazine. “We have to focus on the impact of laws more than the intentions.”

Others addressed the difference between being racially privileged and being a racist. “Every approach to talking about racism based on the past will come up short,” said Dr. John Jackson Jr., an associate professor of communications and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Much of what we learned about racism is almost irrelevant,” Jackson said. “You can be considered a racist for calling someone else a racist. Race is lived through class, ethnic differences, color, and sexuality. It is always complicated and in mutual relationship with other things. Race is in people’s souls and guts. The real honest conversation will include gnashing of teeth.”

Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, noted the everyday realities of discrimination that African-Americans live with through legislative outcomes or economic deprivation – high unemployment, foreclosures due to subprime lending practices that targeted Blacks, “high drop-out rate due to high stakes testing and a criminal justice system that includes racial profiling with 40 percent of the prison population being African-American.”

He also pointed to the disparity in legislation that dictates a difference in mandatory sentencing for the use of crack cocaine, which is more prevalent in minority communities, to sentences handed down for cocaine; as well as a rise in hate crimes. 

Dawn Baum, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said any national discussion on race should address the needs, such as health care and education, of the 564 tribes in the U.S. She credited the Obama administration for quiet efforts that have benefited the American Indian population and made tribal government more accountable. “There is still quite a bit of work to be done,” Baum said.

Cast as the “model minority,” Asian-Americans are dismissed as over-represented in certain areas in universities but misunderstood about the diversity within the group, said Doua Thor, executive director of Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

“The race issue in our community is a lot more subtle,” Thor said. “Part of the dilemma is that all Asian-American communities are lumped together and they don’t disaggregate the data.” Thor points out the lack of attention paid to the broad economic gaps of those earning $75,000 or more and those in the Asian community living on less than $25,000 a year.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art and former president of Spelman and Bennett colleges, called the event a success and summarized the panelists’ issues with, “In order for leaders to take on new conversations about race and racism, they must first have clarity about the issues and a sense of urgency about the problems.”

Cole also reminded the audience that people can not deal with race without addressing our multiple identities in America. “I, Johnnetta Cole, can be a victim as a (Black woman) but I also have class privileges and the privilege of my heterosexual orientation.”

“It was important to come together on a discussion about race,” Cole said. “Saying that we have an African-American president does not mean we are in a post-racist society.”

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) sponsored the symposium and worked in conjunction with honorary co-chairs from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The symposium was part of a larger public education program, RACE, which was launched in 2007 and developed by the AAA with funding from the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation. RACE includes three traveling museum exhibitions, a public Web site and educational materials to enhance public understanding of race and human diversity.