Saturday, February 28, 2009

That fine line between talking and not talking about race

This article in the Washington Post aptly sums up the dilemma with finding that elusive middle between discussing relevant issues of race that still divide this country, and running into the danger of belaboring it – a point we discussed in our earlier posts about race relations in America here and specifically, Erik's post on the importance of Black History Month here.

Writing about Michelle Obama’s education of middle-schoolers about African American heritage at the White House, and Eric Holder’s controversial speech to the Justice Department, among other things, Krissah Thompson says that this sort of focus on race is getting mixed reviews from people on the left and right alike.

Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution had an interesting point: "They definitely have to be careful. Better to have the president and his top African American aides serve as role models and achieve the broader objective by indirection."

He is not alone in thinking that top back officials in the Obama administration may be treading on dangerous territory by expanding the conversation on race, as many have voiced these concerns, including Maureen Dowd. I’ve often believed that talking too much about race may have a very real danger of diluting the issue, and have the effect of cloaking the real problems –such as economic classes as we discussed in previous posts - but I’m not sure if putting things in context, so that generation Y could get a better perspective about the history – and hence, the very real racial scars that have been left as a result - is such a bad idea.

Also, these incidents were part of the celebration of Black History Month, and not some out-of-the-blue forays into the subject. I would think it would be an important part of the commemoration to not only celebrate the milestones, but also to take the opportunity to allow those who have come this far to share their experiences and thoughts.

As Shawnta Walcott, a pollster quoted in the article put it:

“Holder, [Lisa] Jackson and Obama are the first African Americans in their positions, and it should come as no surprise that their celebration of black history is different from their predecessors.”

That is an important point. Even the Bush administration had several minorities in its cabinet, but mere appointment to high office is not going to solve the race problem if you don’t use their presence to actually address the issues, and worse still, simply use it as a talking point to prove that you’re not divisive. In that case, you not only don't deal with the subject, but also sidestep it by proclaiming that it is a non-issue.