FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 10/19/2010

Toward a 21st Century Conversation On ‘Race’

October 6, 2010                                                                     Volume 3 Issue 12

 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Lawrence Holcomb

Since race has been such a contentious issue in American history, I understand why most Americans are eager to move on. For many, the 2008 election of Barack Obama provided the best rationale for turning the page on our troubled past. “Why,” earnest individuals asked, “during this auspicious time in our history, would we want to open up old wounds with a national conversation about race?”

On the surface, it is hard to gainsay this argument. The recent successes of Afro-Americans in the public sphere, the improvement in attitudes towards those of different races documented in opinion polls, and the universal condemnation of overt hostility toward minority groups suggest that America has finally reached the promised land of the “post-racial era.”  But as the unofficial motto of sociologists suggests, “things are not what they seem.” 

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander says as much in her eye-opening 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander maintains that while Americans were warranted in celebrating the election of President Obama, our enthusiasm must be tempered by the fact that today,  “Nearly one-fourth of African-Americans live below the poverty line, approximately the same as in 1968, the child poverty rate is actually higher than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World Countries.”

For Alexander these contemporary statistics, along with the dismal high-school drop out rate and growth of female-headed households in black communities, are directly related to the number of black men incarcerated during the last two decades of the 20th century, a population whose numbers increased three-fold from 1980 to 1983, then a mind-boggling 27-fold over the next seventeen years.

In other words, we’re still a long way from the promised land. We’ve entered instead a new ‘color-blind’ landscape where down is up and up is down. Has “God and country” replaced “segregation forever”? Does “reverse-racism” usurp “the content of our character”? And is the “L” word (liberal) uttered with the disdain usually reserved for the “N” word in the American lexicon of all that is contemptible or unholy?

?Many scholars contend that color-blindness and race-neutral language actually covers overtly racist or anti-equality policies. Yes, we’ve seen much improvement in the socio-economic position of middle-class Afro-Americans, but a disproportionate number of working class blacks remain affected by these seemingly race-neutral policies. And though our society no longer tolerates overt acts of terror, such as cross burnings and church bombings, it’s not hard to see the opponents to racial equality and federal legislation (which ensures civil rights for all Americans) perfecting their post Martin Luther King, Jr. strategy. 

How? By far, the most effective weapon in the twenty-first century’s anti-equality, counter-insurgent’s arsenal is their insistence that any acknowledgment of race must be equated with racism. Consequently, the very people who continue to live with and experience the injustice of racial inequality are dismissed as being race-baiters if they dare broach the issue. Now, instead of a Ku-Klux-Klan or White Citizen’s Council striking fear into the heart of black Americans, we are cowed by a possible association with Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton.

President Obama learned this lesson well. He was labeled a racist for stating the obvious: police acted “stupidly” for arresting a well-known, sixty-something, public figure in his own home after he produced identification confirming this fact. Since then, the only time the Obama administration has acknowledged race has been to fire Shirley Sherrod when Fox News brought her to justice for violating their adversary’s first commandment: ‘Thou Shalt Never Discuss Race.’

For Afro-Americans like myself whose Southern-born, grade-school educated, working class father scrimped, saved, and sacrificed so that his sons would have opportunities not open to him, I worry for my working-class nephews who, surprisingly, face an economic climate more dire than their grandfather, who was born in 1919.

In a society that outsources the type of labor performed by my father, our family has had to wrestle with the seduction of the underground economy. Instead of having conversations with my nephews about a 40-year career with General Electric, like Pops, I’ve had to contemplate, with boys who will always remain playful toddlers in my mind’s eye, the possibility of 40 years behind bars. 

Alexander’s research suggests the deck is stacked against the boys my father’s generation worked so hard to protect and preserve. Although he was a man of few words, there is no doubt that whatever the cost, Kingston Holcomb would want me to start a conversation about it.

Lawrence Holcomb is associate professor of sociology at Gordon College. He lives in Lynn, Massachusetts.