OP-ED: Time to Have a Conversation About Race

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John Lash

John LashCan we have an open, honest discussion about race? I’m not making a request to have such a conversation, what I am wondering is if it is possible. There are a lot of obstacles. Media coverage, through where most people get their information, doesn’t always contribute to the discussion.

In this era of 24-hour news and intense competition for stories, outlets are tempted to skew stories in ways that emphasize or deemphasize race, and not always in a consistent fashion. The inconsistency is pretty easy to understand though; it boils down to the bottom line. Readers and viewers translate to money, and controversy is more entertaining than facts.

The recent case of George Zimmerman was full of examples. Many liberals thought he should be found guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, while many conservatives thought he hadn’t done anything wrong. The media didn’t help. It is clear for instance that NBC editors  altered the 911 call in a way that made Zimmerman appear racist. For many on the right end of the political spectrum (which is predominantly white) this was evidence of a liberal agenda. Let’s remember, though, this same media’s coverage of blacks, especially males, has perpetuated dangerous stereotypes. This isn’t just on Fox News either.

A 2011 report by the Heinz Endowment found that, “the largest block of news stories linked to African-American men and boys involved crime: 86 percent for television and 38 percent for two daily newspapers,” that were surveyed. Human interest, business and other categories of news featured significantly fewer stories focusing on blacks. Where do we go to find out the truth if we can trust Fox or MSNBC (or most other outlets)?

I have a radical suggestion. We could spend more time with people who aren’t our own race. I don’t mean to imply that we intentionally avoid this strategy because of racism; in fact I believe it’s mostly a matter of comfort and familiarity. The roots of racist power structure are deep in this country, and for the most part white people (even liberals) aren’t aware of them. There are many ways in which we blind ourselves to the truth. One way is to blame those who are oppressed. Often the battle cry of those claiming a post racial society is to talk about personal responsibility.

I believe in personal responsibility, and most of the black people I have known do too. So do most of the white people. Pointing out structural inequalities isn’t a denial of this. Don Lemon’s recent comments about race, in which he agreed to several points brought up by Bill O’Reilly focused on family breakdown and poor choices, were widely panned in the liberal community and embraced by conservatives. As The Root points out though, Lemon’s statements, while perhaps flawed, point to a complexity that can’t be easily ignored.

The truth is evident. Something is wrong, not in the “black community,” but in the nation. Blacks, and Latinos as well, are disproportionately affected by excessive policing, harsh laws, higher conviction rates, longer sentences, greater poverty, less access to quality education, higher unemployment … the list is long.  Is it all because black people are making bad choices? To say “yes” is to willfully ignore the facts.

As long as Whites remain largely separated from the people who are affected by this reality it will remain difficult to change. No law, no program, no social policy will make it different in the end. The government, while sometimes helpful, can’t save us as a nation. Only we, as citizens, can bring about change.

Are we willing to do our part to break down racial barriers and stereotypes? Are we willing to let go of preconceived ideas (liberal and conservative) and get to know actual human beings?

I think we can do these things, but I am not sure if we will. I can only continue to do my part and pray for the best. I hope you join me.

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