Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Let's Talk about Race... Uncomfortable Yet?

By Lydia HolleyPublished April 15, 2016

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Politics is becoming an increasingly divided playing field. With Donald Trump on the Republican side and Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders on the other, the American people continue to see polarized viewpoints and shouting across what appears to be a soundproof wall. However, conversations surrounding politics are not the only ones which devolve into divisive, ad hominem attack filled arguments on a regular basis. Discussions about race frequently take on a similar shape.
    Politics is becoming an increasingly divided playing field. With Donald Trump on the Republican side and Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders on the other, the American people continue to see polarized viewpoints and shouting across what appears to be a soundproof wall. However, conversations surrounding politics are not the only ones which devolve into divisive, ad hominem attack filled arguments on a regular basis. Discussions about race frequently take on a similar shape. When viewing, for example, the Bernie Sanders rally being taken over by Black Lives Matter protestors, and the crowd shouting back in protest of these women, we see a conversation that will only further the division between audience members who misunderstand or disagree with the premise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the activists. Of course, there are many foggy areas between these two disparate groups - both different political groups and the informed versus the uninformed - but I think most people can admit that far too many of these conversations do not provoke understanding, and unfortunately, the dehumanization of one polarized end by the other due to such divisive conversation is far too frequent.

    After the election of President Obama, many citizens had high hopes that our society could quickly evolve into a post-racial one - or, perhaps, that on account of Obama's election, this evolution had already occurred due to the symbolic value of the first black (technically biracial) president. Such post-racial thinking and conversation are accompanied by many individuals - especially white individuals - believing that they are, indeed, color-blind. Not color-blind as in physically blind to color, but color-blind as in not carrying the biases of someone who might be considered racist according to them. That is, they see others, regardless of race, as equals. The Millennial generation, including current college students, is perceived by older generations as perhaps the most color-blind generation.


    But, does perceived color-blindness indicate the absence of racism?

    Unfortunately, studies have shown that white Millennials are not necessarily as color-blind - or at least not as unbiased - as they are frequently thought to be, with almost 40% claiming that blacks are less well off due to a lack of motivation. Remember that this is even despite increasing levels of diversity at many universities, and even despite policies such as Affirmative Action, intended to level the playing field for minorities.Similar questions prompted similarly discouraging statistics. Additionally, as Obama's presidency progressed, many black Americans as well as others became increasingly discouraged as to how dedicated he was to improving the lives of black Americans and other minorities due to his neoliberal agenda and universal policies. In fact, Professor Cornel West of Princeton asserts that Obama fears speaking out against white supremacy, and talk show host Tavis Smiley asserts that black Americans, under Obama, have actually lost ground. We also see the development of the Black Lives Matter movement and the controversy surrounding police brutality, both prompting questions about whether or not we truly live in a post-racial society. This question is the subject for another blog post, but I would posit that we do not, given the continued evidence of systematic inequalities built into our current society and the evidence given above, indicating that color-blindness is simply a myth, or a false indicator of anti-racism.

    So, people see that this issue of race continues to present itself in many forms in our current society. However, when it comes to discussion or even casual conversation surrounding the topic, some people become uncomfortable or simply avoid the conversation, especially when discussing
structural racism - that is, racism that is built into society rather than conscious racism expressed on an individual basis. Perhaps this is because of the invisibility of structural racism before direct experience with it or empathetic conversation with others about it. For whites, it may also be because of the perception of blame being placed on them individually, or even because of a denial of the existence of racism in modern-day society. However, conversation is the key to empathizing and understanding different people and perspectives, and therefore may perhaps close the canyon between two polarized perspectives, and even close comparatively smaller gaps in understanding of race. Some people might point to diversity as a way in which to combat such lack of understanding. Cornell boasted last year that the Class of 2019 is the most diverse class yet; however, what does diversity actually mean? In their case, it meant sheer numbers and percentages of different racial and ethnic groups. However, perhaps our goal should not be diversity in this limited sense, but instead, diversity as integration and education regarding different cultures with the goal of expansion of perspectives. In this case, we need a push for integration and understanding so that we can push the aforementioned statistics regarding "blacks' lack of motivation" as well as the accompanying ones toward 0%. Conversation and education regarding different cultures does not come as naturally as many think in a diverse environment, even at Cornell. Many people tend to gravitate toward their own racial and ethnic groups because of feelings of comfort or belonging.

    
Courses here at Cornell such as EDUC 2610: Intergroup Dialogue exist to elevate conversations surrounding contentious topics such as race. However, many students - especially those who struggle with dialogue surrounding race - will not simply gravitate toward such programs. In order to close the polarized gap in perspective surrounding race and in order to prompt understanding of experiences shaped by physical and cultural factors that are not our own, we must institute programs like this in universities. A "Diversity Requirement" may be the answer, encompassing such topics as different cultures or religions. A version of such a requirement has already been voted on and will soon be implemented at UCLA. Students - our soon to be fully-functioning adults, voters, and world-changers - must be equipped with the tools to engage in educated conversations on the topic of race or ethnicity if we are to move toward a more integrated, educated, understanding society, or even to simply appreciate someone's reality that is not our own. To combat a problem, one must first fully understand it.