Since we have just left black history month, I think it’s a good time to reflect on the state of race relations. There is much progress to celebrate. In the past six years, we have had two black secretaries of state. Massachusetts just elected a black governor, and no less than Tennessee almost elected a black man to the senate. As we speak a black man is considered a serious contender to win the Democratic nomination for President.
Yet despite all that progress so much more remains to be done, especially for our generation. The trouble is that too many of us have lost our will to combat racial injustice. Most of us don’t even want to talk about race- we’d much rather ignore the role race plays in our lives. The result is that important observations about race aren’t made, and discontent bubbles under the surface of political correctness and civility.
That’s unfortunate since we are a long way from anything resembling racial equality in this country. Nationwide, blacks are incarcerated at 8.2 times the rate of whites. In fact, young black males are more likely to go to prison than attend college. Blacks earn on average only 77 cents for every dollar whites earn. In going for that first mortgage, Blacks receive high cost loans 15.7% of the time while Whites receive such loans only 8.7% of the time. This is true even after adjusting for income level, location, type of lender, and the loan amounts. For every statistic I name here, I could easily give another two.
Perhaps the landmark achievement of the civil rights movement was the end of legalized segregation. Fifty years after the momentous Brown vs. Board of education decision however, we are just as segregated as ever by many measures. The courts are rapidly dismantling even voluntary desegregation plans in many school districts. The consequence is that districts which experienced a high point of integration in the 1980s are now even more segregated than they were decades ago. Even in schools with diverse populations de facto segregation often rules the day. Just walk into the cafeteria and you can see all-black lunch tables, and all-white tables. Sadly, we are a long way from true integration.
Just as troublesome are the stereotypes that continue to hold sway in society. We have an easier time picturing a black kid on a basketball court than in a laboratory. I have encountered both whites and blacks who think a black kid working hard in school is “acting white.” In the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina, blacks wandering in search of food were labeled as “looters,” while their white counterparts were more charitably described as “searching for food.” I focus on anti-black stereotypes here for a reason: while there is plenty of black racism against whites (and other ethnic groups), blacks don’t generally have the power to institutionalize their prejudices on a large scale. Consequently, while their racism is just as wrong, it does not cause the same harms that anti-black stereotypes and racism do.
Such stereotypes are reinforced by the myriad of racist jokes made when individuals can be sure of their company -there are jokes about all racial groups, but just why is it that the worst of them are reserved for blacks and Latinos? Perhaps I’m being oversensitive. But I can’t help wondering why we find these jokes so funny, or better yet why we feel the need to tell them so often when there are plenty of other jokes out there.
Too many of us have substituted insults and assumptions for dialogue and understanding. There are substantive differences between whites and blacks over many issues such as affirmative-action and bussing. Instead of coming together to air out these legitimate differences and confront our remaining racial problems, we retreat into our own ethnic groups and view each other with distrust and suspicion. Both black and whites are responsible for this, and both blacks and whites in our generation have a duty to change this harmful status quo.
In some ways our ignorance of the role plays in our lives is understandable. Our generation is removed from the struggles of the civil rights era. We see Martin Luther Kings, “I have a dream speech” in black and white. We were not alive for Brown. Vs. Board of education, and we did not desegregate lunch counters. To a lot of us, those things might as well have happened as long ago as D-Day. We have reaped the benefits of the civil rights movement without paying any of the costs. To confront the current challenges however, we must never forget the saga that was the civil rights movement, and we must apply its lessons if we are ever to bring about true equality.
For all of the reservations I have expressed here, I also have reason to be optimistic that our generation will reach the mountain top that Martin Luther King dreamed of. After all we’re the ones who crowded movie theaters to see “Crash” and “Finding Forrester.” For all that divides us, we must remember that just as much binds us together as Americans. Beating the remaining racism in society will require each of us to look inwards and confront our own racist tendencies. We must take concrete action to eliminate quantifiable racial disparities. But above all, we must never forget how far America has come as a nation, and how far it has yet to go. Every generation leaves a legacy to future generations and to history. Let true racial equality and harmony be ours.