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We Have a Long Way to Go on Racial Issues

A few weeks ago in my previous column, I wrote about a candid, no-holds-barred conversation that I had with a student who was enrolled in my summer session course. The discussion was passionate, honest and heartfelt on both sides. Given the fact that the Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen and Supreme Court decisions involving race dominated the media landscape at the time made such an exchange about race very timely and valuable.

Since that time, the George Zimmerman verdict was rendered by a predominately White female jury and further racial and other sorts of accusations against Paula Deen have surfaced. While it may not necessarily have been a long, hot summer, it has indeed been a season of above average temperatures in regards to racial tension and other forms of bigotry and conflict.

From reality shows contestants spewing racial, homophobic and sexist slurs toward and against fellow contestants to massive protests against racialized events to a White player in the NFL dropping the n-word, race is still a subject of deep contention in American society.

The subject had become contentious in some quarters when President Obama weighed in on the Trayvon Martin verdict. In all fairness, reactions to the commander-in-chief’s comments were somewhat predictable. The president was praised by many on the political left for speaking out on the travesty of a unarmed teenager being shot to death by an overzealous adult for simply walking at night in a neighborhood, talking to a friend on his cell phone and snacking on candy and iced tea.

Unsurprisingly, President Obama was excoriated by many politicians and pundits on the conservative right for supposedly “injecting race” into the Martin/Zimmerman saga with the suggestion that the late teen (Martin) could have been him 35 years ago. Routine insults and disrespectful behavior aside, the most notable criticism was that the president was being a “divider” as opposed to a “uniter.” The fact is that such a response from the political right is laughable, disingenuous and, to some degree, racist itself. In fact, it is downright dangerous.

Such a mindset is problematic due to the fact that it demonstrates a strong level of disengagement and denial among those who believe that the commander-in-chief was stoking the flames of racial resentment and that America is a nation devoid of any racial strife. Honestly? Really? Such a notion is absurd. What planet are such individuals living on? More aptly, what nation are these people residing in? It is certainly not the America of 2013.

The fact is that America has had a long history mistreatment of people of color. This has particularly been the case in regards to African Americans. To believe otherwise is to be living in a fantasy world. Such denial has long historical roots.

Just recently the often provocative website, The Grio, ran a story that displayed the misguided perception that a number of Whites have historically harbored in regards to the state of race relations. The article looked at a 1963 Gallup poll conducted that year revealed 67% of Whites believed that Black Americans were treated equally in regards to employment, housing and education. This same poll also indicated that a year earlier in 1962 that many of these same Whites were under the belief that Black children had educational opportunities that were parallel to those of White kids. Mind you, this is the era of the pre-civil rights bill of 1964 where educational, housing, voting, employment and other disparities were not only rampant, they were legally enforced by segregationist laws.

Kirsten Powers, a former staffer in the Clinton administration and current columnist for The Daily Beast, made the point that many White Americans don’t want to hear the fact that racism is still very much a potent force in our society. Rather, too many (certainly not all) Whites (and interestingly a few non-Whites, mainly conservatives of color) would rather pretend that justice in all its forms is blind and racism is a relic of the days of yesteryear. I concur with Ms. Powers. While race relations for the most part, have notably improved since the early to mid 1960s, the fact is that there are still searing issues that need to be addressed.

The fact is that this nation is beyond “needing” to have a conversation on race. We are at the point that we had better acknowledge that the notion of a racial utopia is a myth, that we are a nation in need of rapid healing. Stop the denial and start addressing our problems collectively head-on.

While we are a nation that has come a long way on race, we still have a long way to go. And that’s the truth.

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