Following Trayvon Martin’s death last year and the recent verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial, the issue of race has received much attention. Pundits often use the phrase “national dialogue on race,” however many contributions to the current discourse are not particularly meaningful. Yes, there are a lot of people talking, but who is listening? For any discussion to be truly meaningful, the participants must be willing to process and explore what other people have shared.
Race is a complex issue because it is related to culture, history, identity, and experience. As a result, grappling with the subject is incredibly challenging because doing so forces a person to confront unsettling individual biases along with unjust conditions in the broader society. How many white people are willing to engage in an honest discussion about these issues, i.e. admit that they harbor certain sentiments and benefit from existing social arrangements? Furthermore, how do thoughts about race inform or distort one’s perception of other people?
While the days of the “separate but equal” doctrine are long gone thanks to the hard work of civil rights activists and policymakers, the popular attitudes that made state sanctioned discrimination possible have not disappeared altogether. Decades ago, many white Americans lived in total ignorance or denial of what people of color encountered all over this country: police brutality, restrictive covenants, and disenfranchisement to identify only a small handful of the pervasive injustices that occurred. Undoubtedly, times have changed, but residual attitudes remain and manifest themselves now in different ways such as racial profiling.
Much of the ongoing discussion of race lacks depth. Moreover, it is laden with defensiveness. This keeps us from developing a meaningful understanding of why problems surrounding the issue persist. Unfortunately, many people continue to ignore and deny the problems as they absolve themselves of any social responsibility. Here an amazing learning opportunity is lost, and that might be the greatest tragedy of all.
A version of this piece appeared in Today’s News Herald on July 31, 2013.