In recent months, from crisis to crisis, incident to incident, there’s been lots of talk about the need to have a conversation about race. But frankly, I’m not all that big on the talk of a conversation. There is no shortage of talk. Hopefully it is experience, and not a sense of futility, that informs my skepticism when I hear the phrase: “We need to have a conversation about race.”
First, people almost always want to talk. Blacks want to explain, describe and chronicle the litany of unfairness, slights and injustices they have suffered and continue to endure. Well-meaning whites want to explain that they are not all bigoted or racist and that they “feel our pain.” Others want to stridently hold to their race based privileges and lay at the feet of minorities, the blame for the adverse conditions in which they find themselves. To be sure, we need to get to know and trust each other before we can successfully meet the challenges posed by race and racism in America. But far too frequently, talking is as far as it goes.
Race goes to the core of much of what ails us as a community and as a nation. It cannot be explored without considerable risks. But to what end? There is often little to show for taking the risks that a meaningful dialog involves. Inherent in ‘keeping it real,’ is the risk that we are all likely to hear a few things that don’t sit too well with us; and the risk that we might disagree about remedies and responsibility.
One thought that immediately comes to mind is that for the conversation to move forward everyone involved needs to believe that it can effect a positive outcome and everyone needs to believe that they have a significant stake in achieving that outcome.
So moving forward, let me suggest that we agree on a few basic premises: that we are all created in God’s image; and that we are all vested with the same, equal, inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must agree that our present intention is to ensure that the promise of those rights can be pursued by each and all of us. We must agree to remove impediments to the realization of that promise that are grounded in racism.
This basic agreement won’t solve the race problem for sure. It will help us move forward from a common social baseline. We can then get closer to the kind of clear thinking we need to solve the big problems caused by the disease of racism.
But then what? We can start with what we know.
We know that poor educational opportunities contribute to bad outcomes for young people. What can we do to achieve fairer, if not equal, funding of educational opportunities? Can we justify property tax based funding of education in the face of our history of segregated housing patterns and practices and in the face of race based income disparities? Are we willing to develop inclusive curricula, implement funding alternatives and equitably invest in educational infrastructure?
We know that transportation options impact economic opportunity. Do our transportation policies limit the mobility of some citizens to racially concentrated areas with few employment opportunities? Are we willing to provide opportunities for transportation to suitable work?
We know that in many communities there is questionable treatment of inhabitants by policing authorities based on race. Are we willing to, if necessary, change the racial composition as well as the racial ethos of our public safety apparatus? Do our criminal laws and enforcement mechanisms ensure that we do not purposefully, or inadvertently, use race as a proxy for criminality, or worse? Are we ready to abandon premises and practices that reinforce our ugliest proclivities?
The to-do list on race will not be the same for every community, but every meaningful conversation needs to begin and end with one.
There is often optimism at the start of these ‘conversations.’ And there is a kind of spiritual beauty in “the fact that we’re all talking.” But ultimately the stakes may be too lopsided. Race matters are viewed as aesthetic concerns for some, but they are the gravest matters of survival for others. If the stakes are not recognized as crucial for all participants, everything begins and ends with “the conversation.” We may want conversations, but we need a greater commitment to action. Maybe the time for talk is over. Actions speak louder than words. Maybe it’s time for action.
James H. Swain is an attorney and author. He is an experienced labor lawyer and worked as a federal prosecutor for over 20 years in Philadelphia and Miami.