By John S. Wilson
*This was previously published on PolicyNet: Previously, I blogged here about whether the US is willing to go beyond the traditional racial debate landscape and enter into fertile but untested ground that challenges all of society's views (majority as well as minority populations). It seems the answer to my question is slowly but surely unfolding.
This recent article in the Washington Post was quite illuminating. Comments referencing race and race relations that top officials such as Attorney General Eric Holder, EPA official Lisa P. Jackson, and First Lady Michelle Obama have made didn't sit right with some people and came off as overkill.
"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Holder said. Ms. Jackson later followed those comments by reminiscing on her upbringing in the south and being relegated to drinking from unsafe (colored) water fountains, "Now in 2009, I am, along with you, responsible for ensuring that all Americans have clean water to drink, [c]hange has certainly come to this agency," she said.
Those who thought these comments were a bit much had this to say: "Barack Obama's election was supposed to get us past that," said New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. And blogger Jen Singer added, "Michelle Obama could talk all she wanted about Black History Month, slavery and segregation, but no words could better illustrate to today's schoolchildren how far this country has come than her presence as First Lady." Jelani Cobb, a professor at Spelman College, proclaimed with exasperation "Our major concerns about race are not conversations, [t]hey are about policies, and they are about entrenched legacies of privilege and underprivilege.
So in some ways, these conversations are a substitute for other kinds of more meaningful reform or interaction." With all due respect to Mss. Dowd and Singer and Mr. Cobb, I emphatically disagree. Fact is one election (in which debates raged about President Obama's fictitious Muslim religious preference) does not conclude society's ever-changing dialogue on race. To think so misses the whole point of why we dialogue in the first place. The purpose is to understand various perspectives other than your own, heighten awareness to lessen insensitivity, and draw people closer based on mutual interests, ideals and ambitions. Is one election able to do all that? And, if so, in what manner? Less than 60% of the voting population (18 and above) voted, so how did the other 40% and those under 18 participate in this "efficacious" dialogue? Or were they supposed to get their fill from a Twitter update - "King's dream fulfilled!"?
Also, why are critics assuming Holder was only talking about whites and not society as a whole? Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. was on the right track when he said "Holder was talking about all of us, from white Americans to African Americans to Asians to Latinos." It is telling that Holder mentioned "nation" yet some took that as referring to one group of people. The salience of Holder's comments lies in the fact that neither policies or regulations, legislative wizardy, "bipartisanship", or executive orders from Obama himself will move this country forward on issues of race. Only society itself can move forward by embracing diversity and engaging in meaningful dialogue.
I would ask Professor Cobb: How do we address underprivilege, specifically those sufferers who are disproportionately affected when it comes to access to health-care, high school graduation rates, or incidences of arrest, conviction and longer sentencing, without talking about race? In the age of Oscar Grant and New York Post cartoons, we either need more "postracial elections" or real conversations.
John S. Wilson attends Virginia Commonwealth University with a triple major in economics, sociology, and women's studies. He blogs at Policydiary.com and serves as a regular contributor to Black Web 2.0 where he blogs about technology start-up companies. He currently serves as a legislative fellow in the office of the Honorable David Englin (D) of the Virginia House of Delegates.