Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Problem with Focusing on "Race Relations"

One of the things that really bothers me about the way the media has discussed the fallout to this case is the use of the term "race relations" and all that it implies. From conservative media all the way to the New York Times this phrase is being used as we lament that "race relations" are polarized, that Americans are on edge, that we still have so far to go in understanding each other.

This is not wholly wrong. It is important that we get along. But this fixation on "race relations" reflects the persistent tendency of Whites to define the state of racial justice in America by the level of outward comity between the races. If Blacks appear to be calm, then everything is okay. If people aren't yelling at each other or marching in the streets, we're making progress. This is not just simplistic; by definition it has no connection to actual racial justice. The presence or absence of protests and tense feelings tells us nothing about the backward course of school segregation. It tells us nothing about the quiet and persistent bias in the justice system. It tells us nothing about rampant discrimination in housing and employment. It tells us nothing about whether we're actually getting closer to justice.

Are you the sort of person who cares about these things on a daily basis, or do you only fret about "race relations" when some national anger disturbs your quiet little corner of the world? We need to be people who care about racial justice day in and day out, and that means defining our progress by something much different than surface-level calm. What good "race relations" would look like is a country where there is literally no advantage to being born White. Period.

As Jason Sokol writes in his history of White southerners during the civil rights era, what really provoked support for the key civil rights laws was not a revelation of the daily injustices that Blacks faced. It was rather violence and disorder in the streets in a few high profile spectacles, brought into people's living rooms through their TV screens. There is little evidence that the civil rights movement caused Whites en masse to recognize and turn against their own privilege. On the whole, we just wanted the violence, the disorder, the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, to go away.

White Americans have never in our history shown a consistent commitment to racial justice. Turn off the cameras and let us be told that Black people are happy, and we will go merrily on our way. It doesn't matter what is done quietly, persistently, day after day. Just don't disturb our peace.

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