Not So Deep Thoughts

Can we talk about race?  A few rules of engagement
Written by Joe Pettit
Baltimore Sun Op-Ed, originally published August 1, 2006, p.11A


White politicians rarely talk about black political issues unless they are in front of black audiences.  Take away the black audience, and the issues and interest connected to race fall off the political radar screen.


This tendency of white politicians and white people in general – underscored by President Bush’s recent speech to the NAACP – should stop for both political and moral reasons.  Politically, whites need to get involved in the struggles to reduce racial inequality because no major political change will occur without significant white involvement.  Most state and national politicians are white, with constituencies that are also majority white, and the support of many of these legislators will be necessary to change state and federal laws.


Morally, whites should be involved in debates about racial inequality because those who suffer the consequences of racial inequality are fellow citizens as well as sisters and brothers in a common human family.  The same can be said of Latinos and other minority groups, but the political and social struggles of blacks should be of special interest to whites for obvious historical reasons.  Poverty and injustice anywhere are legitimate concerns for white citizens everywhere.  In addition, white citizens need to learn about and accept responsibility for changing the laws and policies that often benefit majority white communities while entrenching racial inequality elsewhere.


To increase white participation in struggles to reduce racial inequality, we will need to find some way to reduce the discomfort and resentment that both blacks and whites can too quickly feel when talking with each other about problems connected to race.  I propose the following five rules as a means of promoting public debate about racial inequality that is both civil and constructive.


Rule One: Disagreement does not imply either racism or stupidity.  There are no obvious solutions to the problem of racial inequality.  Honest people can disagree with each other without disrespecting each other.


Rules Two: Focus on law and policy rather than on racism.  Racial inequality is primarily caused by laws and policies connected to issues such as housing, education, criminal punishment, and health care, not racism.  Starting with the problem of racism either ends the conversation before it starts (calling someone a bigot is not a good way to start a constructive conversation) or it reduces the problem of racial inequality to a change of heart rather than political change.


Rule Three: Personal responsibility cuts both ways.  Yes, personal choices can have much to do with a person’s misery, and recent debates about “disconnected” young black men correctly point to the need for personal transformation.  However, there is also a significant political dimension to racial inequality, and silence in the face of injustice is a personal choice as well.


Rule Four: Colorblindness is not the solution.  We cannot be neutral about race in a country that has experienced great racial bias for more than 300 years.  The past lingers mightily in the present.


Rule Five: Treasure black achievement.  As a white professor at Morgan State University, one of the historically black colleges and universities, I learn more every year about diversity and achievement in black history, religion and culture.  My experiences leave me both appalled at the stereotypes of black communities promoted by the media and popular culture, and excited to learn more about the riches that have been denied to me by a world that succeeds more in isolating whites and blacks from each other than in bringing them together.


Perhaps by appreciating the treasures that are lost to all of us because of deep and persistent racial inequality, more whites will finally commit themselves to the cause of racial justice.