Why Now is the Time to Talk About Race in America

article | February 05, 2015

This piece is part of “From Moment to Movement,” a conversation and essay series on race and policy in America in collaboration with Howard University. Join us for the launch event on Feb. 10: Criminal Justice and Racial Inequality.  

The killing of Michael Brown by Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in August and the resulting controversy set off a broad, deep national discussion around issues of race. Over the next six months, President Obama created a task force on policing. Young activists emerged to lead marches across the country. Police argued that they could be part of the solution to the racial divide in America, while protesters started highlighting the other deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of the police. Top officials in both political parties said the death of Eric Garner, choked by police in New York, was unnecessary. Hillary Clinton even invoked the protestors’ rallying cry in a speech in December: “Black lives matter.”

But now, six months later, I’m around worried that public debate is ending already and far too early.  (I’m not alone in that concern.  Vox recently published a piece titled “Twitter forced the world to pay attention to Ferguson. It won't last.”)

We can’t stop now. It’s important to make 2015 a year to talk about and take action on racial issues...

We can’t stop now. It’s important to make 2015 a year to talk about and take action on racial issues; a number of forces are aligned that provide a unique opportunity to address both familiar challenges and new concerns.

What’s so special about this year? First, the events of last year are still fresh in people’s minds. Ferguson in particular was a huge, important reminder of the racial divide that still exists in America. And it was the most direct rebuttal to anyone who argued that Obama’s election had significantly altered how the country views race. For example, recent polling illustrating the divide between how blacks and whites view the police (blacks view them in a significantly worse light than whites) looks almost the exactly the same as it did in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial. In this case, the lack of change is the story: some of the reactions to Brown’s death, Wilson’s acquittal and the protests unfolded as if Obama’s election had never happened.

Related: Ferguson should be more than a moment

Second, 2015 is the beginning of the end of the Obama era. This is not to suggest Obama is somehow a lame duck or irrelevant. He is certainly not. The police task force he has started is expected to release some of its findings in March and those could be significant.

That said, there is always an expectation in America that whoever is president will “lead” on every issue, while the rest of us wait their signal to move. Expecting any president – whose job it is to build consensus – to take on an issue that has divided Americans for more than two centuries is unrealistic. Expecting the first black president, elected with almost unanimous support among African-Americans but tasked with balancing the goals and aspirations of black and non-black Americans, was even more fanciful.

But whoever is the next president won’t be the first African-American to hold the office, and the current field suggests it will not be an African-American at all.  So there is a chance for one of the potential candidates to offer leadership on racial issues in ways that Obama hasn’t and probably can’t. There are signs that’s happening already. Hillary Clinton, not Obama, invoked the “black lives matter” phrasing in December. Jeb Bush has delivered strong comments in defense of Latinos who have come to the U.S. illegally, suggesting it is an “act of love” for them to come to America and work to pay for their families’ expenses in their home countries. Another 2016 candidate, Rand Paul, visited Ferguson in the wake of Brown’s death. Paul has talked about the dangers of supplying local police with military-style equipment and bemoaned the number of black men in jail for non-violent drug crimes.

The coming presidential election is also a chance for the citizens to lead the politicians, as opposed to the reverse.

The coming presidential election is also a chance for the citizens to lead the politicians, as opposed to the reverse. A huge field of candidates is starting to travel around the country, talking about their visions for the country. Many of these visions are embryonic. The campaign is a chance for politicians, think tanks, non-profits and other organizations to put forward ideas to solve nagging racial problems. Also, the upcoming debates, forums and interviews offer a chance to press the candidates to think about these issues.

Which leads to point number three: the quiet, somewhat unnoticed shift in the media that will make it easier to talk about race. We’re seeing new voices with deep history and comfort talking about issues of race emerge on some of the country’s largest media platforms. Larry Wilmore filled Stephen Colbert’s slot on Comedy Central. Even in its early days, Wilmore’s show has addressed racial issues like the lack of Oscar nominations for the movie Selma  in both subtle and direct ways. Some of the policy journalism outlets that have emerged over the last two years, such as Vox and the New York Times’ the Upshot, regularly use data to highlight racial divides. There appears to be a strong audience online for this kind of reporting. Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic and Jamelle Bouie of Slate are two of the most influential writers on politics and public policy in America, and their audiences follow them in part because of their commentary on race. Who could have imagined one of the most well-read articles of 2014 would be Coates’ provocative piece on reparations for African-Americans, an idea that is deeply controversial and almost certain not to happen?

2/10: A discussion on criminal justice and racial inequality. RSVP here.

Fourth, the politics of race have changed. It’s no longer the dividing line of American politics (polls suggest Americans are more divided by partisanship than race). And there may be more political energy to address race issues among the rising millennial generation that didn’t grow up in the era of segregation, civil rights protests and busing. For this generation, the racial divide is not the same tired problem they’ve spent decades trying to solve. And unlike some of our other political flash points, race is not a zero-sum issue. Indeed, some of the solutions for income inequality will likely require taking money from one group and redistributing it to another bloc. Everyone benefits if police and African-Americans build better relations.

So we have an opportunity. But we also have potential threats to that opportunity.

So we have an opportunity. But we also have potential threats to that opportunity. For example, the tendency some have to divert attention away from discussing racial issues, arguing that many racial problems are just as much about class as race. Obama occasionally says this himself. And it’s true. Some rural, majority-white communities are struggling with some of the same problems as urban black communities, with low rates of education and too many people not working full-time.

Talking about class unites in a way that race doesn’t. This approach might work on education policy, although the challenges of low-achieving Latino, black and rural-white students are distinct in some ways. It doesn’t work in regards to policing, where young black youths have concerns about being targeted by police that I suspect rural white youth don’t. That’s a race issue, not a class one.

The other way people try to avoid talking about race: by arguing that since race is, after all, a human construct, the way to stop talking about race is to stop talking about race (to paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts). But racial problems aren’t disappearing as we stop talking about them. About 30 percent of Americans are black or Latino. Five blacks or Latinos serve in the U.S. Senate, and there are no black governors. These kinds of opportunity challenges in elite fields are persistent, and they’re not being solved through silence.

So if we’re talking about race, what should we be talking about in 2015? Here are a few ideas. In an era of low crime across America, is aggressive, “broken-windows” policing still the best approach, particularly if it leaves black youth feeling like targets? How should citizen deaths at the hands of police be investigated? If people on the left and the right didn’t like No Child Left Behind or Common Core, what are their ideas to address under-achievement of minority students? What will each party do to make sure our nation’s governors and senators, the true leaders of our country, are as diverse as the rest of us?

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions. And America’s political class hasn’t spent much time on hashing them out in a public debate. I take some of the blame for that myself. Talking about racial issues can be tiring, frustrating and divisive. I, like I suspect many other African-Americans (and for the matter President Obama), want to be as inclusive as possible. Racial discussions tend to leave people uncomfortable. I’m always wary of being the black person bringing up race and the perils of that in any environment.

But we need a new set of racial policies for a new America. Let’s start talking about them now. And don’t stop until we’ve figured out some real solutions.