Monday, February 23, 2009

Dialogue Isn’t Enough

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director at the Kirwan Institute

The media coverage of Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent race speech invariably led with his suggestion that “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

And so we have a major hullabaloo about the wisdom and accuracy of that reference, and almost nothing on the rest of the 2400-word speech.

Mr. Holder gets a lot right. Our race talk tends to be neither frank nor constructive. We have yet to seriously engage with our racial past or with its implications for present and future dynamics. The sequestration of an often thinly-articulated “black history” in the shortest month of the year is troubling in principle and practice. Most importantly, as Mr. Holder says, “We still speak too often of ‘them’ and not ‘us,’” thereby ignoring the ways in which we ultimately rise or fall together.

Those aren’t slim pickin’s, and there’s even more there that warrants our attention.

The major problem with Mr. Holder’s remarks, in my view, was his inattention to the programmatic changes we’ll need to achieve the kind of racial vision to which he aspires. His characterization of America as “voluntarily” segregated makes my point.

To be sure, biases and aversions, both blatant and hidden, loom large in our racial culture and there’s a real element of choice to how we compose our social networks. But even a casual analysis of racial interaction that doesn’t note how things like exclusionary zoning, racial steering in housing, school funding inequities, and school tracking practices constrain our choices misses the boat.

Those who read the whole piece could be forgiven for concluding that we’re just one great, sustained national conversation away from racial nirvana. We’re not. What’s most needed are hardcore changes in practice and policy that lead to and emerge from institutional transformation: changing where federally subsidized housing is sited; making school funding equitable, rather than aiming for a grossly inadequate “equality”; meaningful criminal justice reform; attention to the racialized distributions of burdens and benefits that typically attach to “universal” measures like the current stimulus package.

A constructive national dialogue may be a necessary precursor or complement to these kinds of changes, but it cannot stand alone. The attorney general is right: institutionally speaking, the America of today isn’t the America of the 1950’s and 1960’s. However, nor is it the America it must yet become.

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