Race matters. Even when not explicit, it is an indelible ingredient of social, political and economic reality in America and throughout the world. The primacy of race should neither be ignored nor minimized. (When campaigning, President Barack Obama initially eschewed any mention of race, but subsequently, had no choice but to address it directly.)
At the 2008 national NAACP convention, Obama first pledged to be responsive to Blacks' concerns, but his subsequent comments were general: "I've spent the last year and a half talking about poverty and the problem of injustice...My answer (regarding focusing on Blacks) is that's what I've been doing my whole campaign."
Of course, he was skirting the issue because Blacks' concerns are significantly different from others. His statement at that convention was similar to those of public school officials, for example, who fail to distinguish between the needs of Black students, the lowest achievers, and others, and therefore, do not provide them the resources necessary to succeed.
Debate still rages over the role of race and the more notorious disputes were affirmative action and school desegregation. However, Brown v. Board of Education has neither ended school segregation nor required concrete implementation tools to repair the harms of "separate but equal."
Law Professor Derrick Bell's analysis of race and racism, especially as related to Blacks, is both insightful and disturbing--("Faces at the Bottom of the Well," 1992). (No apology for having previously extolled Professor Bell's analyses because he powerfully and convincingly articulates the essence of racism and its pernicious effects on the lives of Black people.)
Derrick Bell, "Racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society." He argues that no matter what policies are adopted to better Blacks' condition, they will not succeed as long as the majority of whites do not see their own well-being threatened by the status quo. Bell reminds us that our forbearers, though betrayed into bondage, survived the slavery in which they were reduced to things, property and entitled to neither respect nor rights. Somehow, they managed to retain their humanity and their faith that evil and suffering were not the extent of their destiny. He asserts we must do no less than they did, i.e., fashion a philosophy that both matches the unique dangers we face and enables us to recognize in those dangers as opportunities for committed living and humane service.
Commenting on the contemporary relevance of racism, Bell points out that during slavery, racism's terrifying dangers, although exclusively from without, were hardly more insidious than those Blacks face today, indirectly, especially in inner cities. Victimized by a callous, uncaring society, many young Black men there vent their rage on others like themselves, thereby perpetuating a terror once invoked only by whites.
America's myth of automatic progress has never included the marginalized: Blacks, the poor and others whom the myth ignores, are conspicuously in the center of current conservative, race-based tirades which calls for a national history and agenda that incorporates Blacks' experiences. Slaves had no choice but to accept their fate. De-legitimizing the racism of the white majority first requires accurately describing it; racism remains at the center, not the periphery of the lives of virtually everyone in America, not only in distant memories.
Professor Bell insists that in order to extract lessons from slaves' survival, as well as our own, we must first honestly face the horrific oppression in that survival with the kind of commitment that Black people have had to display since slavery, i.e., "Making something out of nothing--carving a humanity for oneself with absolutely no help, only imagination, will, and unbelievable strength and courage."
Combating racism calls for engagement and commitment, first recognizing and acknowledging (at least to ourselves) that our actions are not likely to lead to transformative change. But that realization and renewed dedication will result in policies and sustained efforts that are less likely to worsen our condition and more likely to convey to the powers that be that we are not only against them, but determined to stand in their way.
Race transcends the pervasive cult of its denial--exemplified by the Tea Party, in America--and despite contemporary camouflage its manifestations are no less ubiquitous. It continues to soil the fabric of this society that is based on the power of the majority to control others, principally on the basis of race and ethnicity.
Failure to acknowledge the role race plays throughout American society, in government, schools, the economy and, indeed, all of life, ensures its continued prominence. Those of us oppressed must lead the fight for change
Larry Aubry can be reached at e-mail