The killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager from Florida—and the jury’s subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the white man who shot him. The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager from Ferguson, Missouri, by white policeman Darren Wilson—and the decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer. The massacre of nine African Americans by a white supremacist at a Charleston church in June 2015. These are just a sampling of violent racially charged incidents that have taken place over past three years.
These episodes have sparked rage, disillusionment, sorrow, resentment, and confusion. According to a New York Times/CBS News pollconducted last month, nearly six in 10 Americans, including majorities of both white and black people, think race relations in the US are generally bad, and nearly four in 10 say the situation is worsening.
Yet in spite of this awareness and introspection, our country is still incapable of a coherent, intelligent national conversation about race. Indeed, the subject of race is so sensitive and so volatile that most people are apt to avoid it altogether. Why is that?
President Obama’s deeply personal thoughts have filled the air and blogosphere with renewed calls for that serious conversation about race we keep meaning to have in this country. But for any such conversation to occur, let alone succeed, the president noted, white Americans must recognize that African-Americans look at race relations “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
As a white liberal who has just published a book about my own experiences with Chicago’s civil rights movement in the 1960s, I too have been struck by how personal experience influences not just my view of specific incidents, but by how the baseline of how we discuss race has shifted. Just over my own life span, I have seen that as a nation, we have been able to move the race conversation forward — even if we don’t always recognize at the time that we are doing so. Read More »
Larry, one of the employees you supervise, hasn’t been performing his job up to expectations. But you’ve been reluctant to take him aside and speak with him candidly: Like most senior people in the company, you are white. What if Larry, who is black, takes your criticism the wrong way or, worse, thinks you are racist?
The last thing you want is for others to think your actions were influenced by race. So you’ve held off talking to him about performance issues that you’d likely have raised with your non-minority employees. You’re relieved that a potentially thorny situation was averted, even pleased with your capacity to be so racially sensitive.
My research investigates the science of diversity. Some of the questions I’ve been working on lately explore what strategies people use to appear unprejudiced in social situations, and to what extent these efforts are effective.
Ever see the Colbert Report on Comedy Central? One of Stephen Colbert’s recurring jokes is that he is “racially colorblind.” Colbert, the political satirist who portrays a self-important right wing commentator, says things like: “I don’t see race … People tell me I’m white, and I believe them, because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffett albums.” His colorblindness is a running joke and repeated on the show with different punch lines some tamer than others.
It’s a very funny routine. And Stephen Colbert gets away with it because he’s a comedian. But in the real world, racial colorblindness is a tricky subject. In my research, I’ve discovered that people who claim to be colorblind and go to great pains to avoid talking about race during social interactions, are in fact perceived as more prejudiced by black observers than people who openly acknowledge race.