The Catch-22 of National Conversations About Race

Voting rights march, Selma, AL
Voting rights march, Selma, AL
America has a tradition of getting its best results on racial justice issues when it drags them into the spotlight.

America’s problem with racial justice was exposed yet again by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin — so should we talk about race, or not?

President Obama opened himself up personally on the subject the other day, and was rightly credited by many for his honest and direct approach to the problem. But many others observed that Obama’s remarks were so noteworthy precisely because he so rarely addresses race — which may be a conscious strategy:

Second, Obama believes that talking about race too much is not only useless — he dismissed “national conversations about race” — but, in his case, counterproductive. The entire Barack Obama political image has been built in large part around de-racialization — persuading white voters to put aside any preconceptions about race and to think of him in nonracial terms. Obama, according to one analysis, has “talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961.” His famed race speech about Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 campaign was, above all, an effort to put to bed the race issue. Being seen by white America as a spokesman for the black community, rather than America as a whole, has always been Obama’s number-one political nightmare. He spoke out today in spite of this instinct.

A lot of commentators seem to agree about Obama’s de-racialization, and if the empirical data cited above are accurate, these commentators may be right. Moreover, and despite inspiring rabid racially charged opposition from the tea party, theoretical approaches from the study of diversity education may point to the psychological reasons behind the success of Obama’s strategy.

In public education campaigns to counter ethnic prejudice, studies have shown that holistic approaches that stress “similarities between ethnic minorities and the majority population” are significantly more effective. It makes sense, with the foundations of moral psychology resting on the differences between in-groups and out-groups, that making someone feel like certain people are part of the in-group would decrease one’s propensity to ethnic prejudice.

And Barack Obama, it turns out, has made something of a career out of highlighting our similarities as Americans instead of our differences:

So here’s the Catch-22: we have a huge problem with racial injustice in America. The legal system is tilted to the disadvantage of certain racial groups, notably black people. To fix a problem that entrenched, we must take proactive steps, and that requires recognizing and building awareness of the problem. But recognizing the problem necessarily highlights differences between races, rather than similarities, potentially increasing prejudice and undercutting a solution.

Except what works on paper doesn’t always apply in the real world. Racists in America have a lengthy history of cloaking their racism in an approach that makes all groups seem similar. See, for example, the traditional arguments that poll taxes, literacy tests, and voter ID requirements apply equally to everyone, so they couldn’t possibly be about race! (Oh, but they do disproportionately impact people of certain races. What a weird coincidence!) America also has a pretty robust tradition of getting its best results on racial justice issues when it drags them into the spotlight and forces people to confront them — that’s why the United States celebrates Martin Luther King Day.

So in the end, the lesson I take is that if you want to promote racial justice, you can run from discussions of race (and there may be some short term advantage to doing so at times), but ultimately you can’t (and shouldn’t) hide.