Here we are again. The recent Supreme Court holdings on the Voting Rights Act and the Texas Affirmative Action cases, the Trayvon Martin verdict, voter ID and election law changes in a number of states, the Paula Dean debacle, the election and aftermath of controversial Jackson mayor Chokwe Lamumba and suddenly the major topic of conversation is once again that of race, racism, and the current state of race relations. Recent Sunday political talk shows were virtually 100 percent on topic.
“Vexing” is the word one African-American commentator used to describe the current state of affairs in the racial discussion. Certainly a central part of the problem in finding the words to enter into a discussion, as President Obama asked us to do, has to do with multiple generations attempting to weigh in with fixed perspectives on a number of fluid situations. There are those who came of age during the Jim Crow era when segregation in the South was a matter of law, and as such it embodied those dreaded code words “our Southern way of life.” Then there are those who primarily remember the transition period characterized by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when racial segregation as a matter of law was ended forever. The years following were characterized by total school desegregation and our initial very clumsy efforts at learning to get along socially as we adapted to the principles of “political correctness.” And now there is the younger generation with little or no personal knowledge of the depth of the struggles that it has taken to get this far. Furthermore, this latter group feels little responsibility for correcting the ills of previous generations.
Thus, we carefully speak in multiple languages reflecting what we have come to believe, given the eras through which we have passed. Yes, there are whites who still embrace a time before the federal government stepped in to guarantee that no law could allocate opportunity based on race and there are younger whites who feel no responsibility for providing corrective measures for inequalities that they feel they had no part in producing. By the same token, there are African-Americans who lived in the Jim Crow era who understandably still harbor resentment for being legally accorded status as second class citizens, and elements of this resentment are passed from one generation to the next.
And yes, there is a growing number of well meaning whites who endeavor daily to not allow race relations to regress. Furthermore, there is an increasingly more visible number of conservative African-Americans who clearly resent what they would describe as lingering paternalistic attitudes on the part of well-meaning whites, and at the same time they resent African-Americans who accept such attention. Noted economist, scholar and prolific writer Thomas Sowell is emblematic of this group.
As if the evolving diversity of experience were not enough, there is the current combative political arena and the diverging economy to consider. The fact that in elections over the past 40 years the African-American vote has consistently exceeded 90 percent for Democratic candidates throws fuel on the fire of the growing number of tighter election laws and voter ID legislation. Since these laws have been advocated almost exclusively by Republican majority legislatures the optics makes the black vote and support for the Democratic Party seem almost interchangeable.
As far as the economy is concerned, the growing divide between the well-off and the working classes appears to magnify our inability to empathize with one another’s daily struggles. Thus, we arrive at the scenario characterized by the question: “Since the free market knows no color or race, what is the role of government in creating and enhancing life chances?”
We often hear the phrase “We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.” We picked the “low hanging fruit” when we dispensed with the blatantly discriminatory laws nearly 50 years ago. Arguably, the rest of the way is indeed the hardest part.
President Obama called for a conversation on race. Just as the commentator said, commencing this discussion is “vexing” in light of the fact that we speak from so many deeply held perspectives.
How do we speak with the same language? Perhaps we had better learn because we are fast approaching the day when there will be no majority ethnic group.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.