“Why does everything have to be about race?”
“I’m tired of talking about race.”
“I don’t see color.”
“You’re playing the race card.”
Have you heard these phrases? Perhaps you have said these phrases.
Such sentiments, however, are not new.
James Baldwin’s interview with Paul Weiss from 1967 describes institutional outcomes
Acclaimed civil rights author James Baldwin appeared on the Dick Cavett show on May 16, 1969 and had an intense conversation with Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss. At one point, Professor Weiss exclaims, “Why does everything have to come down to race?”
“Why does everything have to come down to race?”
The conversation that followed displays a paradigm comparison between Baldwin, who argues about the impact that systemic racism and oppression can have on one’s life, and Weiss, who argues that Baldwin himself was an example of how Black individuals can be successful and overcome societal barriers, barriers which many people face besides just race.
The interview concluded with a statement from Baldwin that is among his most well-known:
“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But, I can only include what they feel from that state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church which is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me. That doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their unions. I don’t know if the Real Estate Lobby has anything against black people, but I know the Real Estate Lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read, and the schools that we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children, on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”
Data highlights the disparities
The past two and a half years have seen an explosion of awareness about race and racial equity, both locally and across the country. But when we examine the state of our institutions, as Baldwin said, we see instances time and time again, where racial disparities exist. The data shows us that racial disparities exist across health indicators, economic means, life expectancy, infant health, bank loans to mortgages, home appraisals, among others. They have persisted before and during the pandemic, even though tremendous strides have been made to invest in communities that were hit disproportionately.
“Divisive concepts” diverts attention from noting and addressing the disparities
In many instances, institutions, such as governments, hospitals, and schools, have made a statement about racial equality and social justice.
But as Dr. King once wrote in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:
“Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”
We have seen, for one reason or another, some organizations try and moderate their stance or neutralize anything that seeks to raise awareness about disparate treatment. For many individuals, the discussion of the impact of race or racial disparities can mean that one risks their job, because it is labeled a “divisive concept.”
But one cannot ignore these disparities or refuse to talk about them.
Honestly, many Black people are tired from talking about race, too.
But we can’t stop talking about race because it impacts our very lives.
Data will inform solutions, but won’t overcome a lack of will
As tragedies such as the murder of George Floyd recede from national prominence in media, the question becomes: what will it take for us as a society to become so tired of talking about race, that we do something to illuminate the systemic presence of discrimination through racism and take the steps necessary to combat it or eliminate it?
Baldwin keenly noted the disparities in both institutional indicators and outcomes. As advocates in the present day, we can use data as an indicator of the nature of the problem, data to track our current progress, and data to measure success in the pursuit of racial equity. From how Black people are treated in the healthcare system through maternal mortality and morbidity, to supporting Black elders, data can help tell the stories.
Dr. King, in a lecture delivered in Oslo shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace prize, remarked:
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”
He went on to say that “It is not a lack of human resources, it is a lack of human will.”i
We cannot ignore or shy away from the hard conversations about race and disparities, but instead embrace the possibility of listening and learning about the experiences of others. Then identify ways we can do individually and collectively to form the will as a society to drive change.