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Race conversation rises to forefront of national consciousness

Peniel E. Joseph

Whether or not we want to admit it, Americans are finally engaging in a national conversation about race and democracy.

But it’s not happening in a single town hall forum televised on C-SPAN or through a Twitter chat hosted by President Barack Obama, with millions tuning in. No, this conversation has been happening week after week, month after month, all summer, on the steps of the Supreme Court, in the halls of Capitol Hill and in small forums around the country leading up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Indeed, the collective conversation that some called for in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict has actually been replaced by organic discussions as Americans react to a slew of events — from Supreme Court decisions to presidential press conferences to Justice Department decrees. And each one reminds me that this is what democracy looks like when it’s working.

For instance, this past Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston gathered civil rights activists and historians for a panel analyzing the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The panelists discussed the way Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech offered a vision of multiracial democracy while challenging all American politicians to re-imagine the meaning of citizenship and freedom.

Each speaker reminded the audience that even the passage of successful civil rights legislation required constant vigilance and enforcement. They also discussed the way in which President John F. Kennedy’s political evolution on the subject of racial equality paralleled the movement’s own maturity during the Civil Rights era.

Most provocatively, the panel analyzed how King’s famous wish for his children to “be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin” has been hijacked. Colorblind racism in contemporary America substitutes rhetorical equality for genuine racial justice. More perversely, it accuses those who dare to mention race of being racist.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the only speaker from the 1963 March on Washington still living, delivered a keynote address that touched upon his personal experiences as a Civil Rights activist and the struggle for voting rights then and now.

The most striking aspect of the panel and Lewis’ keynote was the forward-looking discussion of how the lessons from 1963 could help contemporary struggles for racial justice.

President Obama himself weighed in on the merits of such a discussion in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, expressing skepticism that politicians could lead such a conversation. Largely prodded by outrage from civil rights activists, Obama helped to start this latest public examination of race in America in July with extemporaneous remarks about Trayvon Martin’s death and the African American community.

The president’s admission that he could have been Trayvon 35 years ago offered the rare insight into him as a black man and father. Obama followed up these remarks a little over a week later in a discussion of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, during which he noted that the historic demonstration expressed nuanced support for racial equality and economic justice.

Beyond Obama’s comments, the highlight of this emerging conversation has been Attorney General Eric Holder’s watershed speech at the American Bar Association (ABA) in San Francisco last week announcing a dramatic shift in the Justice Department’s philosophy and policy toward nonviolent drug offenders.

Holder’s remarks, which candidly addressed racial and class bias ingrained in our judicial system, represent a game change for activists seeking to transform America’s flawed criminal-justice apparatus. Holder’s remarks reflect the potential for a dramatically reshaped political and social landscape regarding the national approach not just to crime and punishment but also to civil rights, democracy and citizenship.

Almost as if on cue, a federal judge struck down New York City’s stop-and-frisk program for being racially biased against minorities. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly immediately denounced the decision in a press conference that touted the stop-and-frisk program as crime prevention and not racial profiling.

Stop-and-frisk has not been declared illegal, however, just unfairly applied. Thousands of young black and brown men and women who have endured such intrusive searches over the past several years can breathe easier, but the judge’s decision stopped short of throwing out the program entirely.

Hillary Clinton, in an address this past month to the ABA, forcefully criticized the Supreme Court’s recent weakening of the Voting Rights Act in the “Shelby v. Holder” decision. “Anyone that says that voting discrimination is no longer a problem in elections must not be paying attention,” Clinton remarked in her speech. Clinton’s defense of voting rights acknowledged the long road yet to be traveled to ensure racial justice in the nation’s political system.

These public conversations about racial justice between government officials, civil rights activists and scholars are important steps in a much larger transformation that will be required to move toward the vision of racial equality and economic justice that King articulated 50 years ago in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

In the intervening decades since that glorious Wednesday in August, the nation has lost its way. The fierce moral urgency and political organizing that defeated Jim Crow, secured voting rights and pursued democracy for sharecroppers in Mississippi, autoworkers in Detroit and welfare-rights activists in Baltimore has sagged in recent years.

Civil Rights-era victories thought to have been long won have come under assault by the nation’s highest court, and economic hardship has become endemic enough to be accepted as the harsh fate awaiting more than three-quarters of Americans.

Perhaps the most important theme of all these very public conversations about race and democracy can be found in their public recognition of institutional racism. In the imagined “post-racial” world of America in the age of Obama, this is no small victory.

Racial denial marked by colorblind racism’s condescending and tragic inability to acknowledge the roots of racial disparities in life chances for American citizens is at the heart of contemporary racism.

A historically informed and research-based public conversation about race matters in American life serves as a powerful reminder of the way in which the struggle for social justice can fundamentally change society, bringing America closer to becoming a democracy that’s as good as its people deserve.

Peniel E. Joseph is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University.