America needs real race policy, not rhetoric

By Joe Katz

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to appear on the presidential ballot for a major party. In 2000, Joseph Lieberman became the first Jew on a major party ticket. Neither of them made any discernable difference in American history. There are already some ominous signs that history is repeating itself.

With Bill Richardson throwing his hat into the ring, the Democratic field is historically diverse. The governor of New Mexico would be the first Hispanic to hold America’s highest office, just as Barack Obama would be the first black and Hillary Clinton the first woman. On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani would be the first Italian-American in the Oval Office and Mitt Romney the first Mormon. After a 2004 presidential race that comedy writers dubbed “The Thrilla in Vanilla,” this election cycle will feature a field with some vague resemblance to the true demographic breakdown of our country.

We can certainly expect plenty of “oohing” and “aahing” about this great leap forward over the coming weeks. But do we dare hope for a discussion that delves a little deeper?

As a nation, we have a well practiced tendency to pat ourselves on the back too much when it comes to race relations. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we sullenly nod to the distance we have yet to travel before we reach the civil rights hero’s promised land, but the other 364 days of the year most of us cheerily regard all chasms as bridged and all barriers as broken. We are satisfied with the equality we have established in name and somewhat unconcerned with the inequalities that still dog us in reality. The gaps in educational achievement, basic services, economic opportunities, and day-to-day experience all pale in our minds before the mighty Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the powerful Brown decision. We think of racial justice as history, rather than a goal, and refuse to listen to those who would inform us otherwise.

One of the greatest examples of this phenomenon is our tendency to think of symbolic victories as emblematic of widespread progress. They are strides worthy of celebration, rather than reflection. This was clearly illustrated in November 2006 as we widely crowed about the election of the first Muslim to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first black to the corner office on Beacon Hill. A few rather obvious questions were buried under the confetti. For instance, why is it that more than 140 years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, we’ve never had more than one black in the U.S. Senate at one time? Given how much of the population they make up, shouldn’t we be seeing black candidates running for statewide offices on a regular basis? How is it that despite their increasing power as a voting bloc and the effect of the niche issue of illegal immigration, we have just one Hispanic in the corner office of a State House? Sure, it’s historic, but why did it take us so long to get here? Why doesn’t it concern us that this is still a newsworthy achievement? And what does this actually say about how enfranchised these formerly despised minorities are?

Such topics are simply not on the table in political debate. Race has not been a major issue in a national election in its own right in 40 years. At times, code phrases like “affirmative action” and “law and order” have been launched from the daises of both parties, but neither Democrats nor Republicans have used them as a launching point for serious consideration of where we are and where we are going in our journey toward the melting pot. Put bluntly, you don’t win elections by making people feel uncomfortable or defensive, and the who-did-what-to-whom rhetoric that persistently emerges out of such discussions tends to have precisely that effect.

The precedence of electoral considerations over policy progress on racial issues is beginning to pose a danger to the American system. It took almost two centuries for Americans to accept that we were a two-color nation, and it is still questionable how much that has really sunk in. We have been stunningly slow to come to grips with the reality that we can now conservatively be considered a four-color nation. With the day not far away when whites will be a minority in the United States, this is no longer something we can ignore. As Julian Bond put it in his Martin Luther King Day speech at Rockefeller Chapel, the Americans who are paying into Social Security now are just as likely to be named Tamika and José as they are Bob and Ralph, and our sense of what America should be and stand for needs to change to include their hopes and needs. We are at the point where we are avoiding the inevitable in the name of political expediency, and we are overdue for some brave soul who will stop ducking the question.

We have a unique opportunity to jump-start a national dialogue over the next 22 months. The chaos and heartbreak of Hurricane Katrina were a wake-up call for all of us, and the stars are aligned for a number of our presidential candidates to stop us from hitting the snooze button. Whether it is politically correct to say so or not, it is much easier for an Obama or a Richardson Lopez to talk honestly about race than it is for an Edwards, a Kerry, or a McCain. We would be foolish to the point of negligence to become so mired in self-congratulation over the very presence of color in the race that we do not take advantage of the different perspectives that color can provide.

It is both reasonable and unavoidable for the country to take a moment to celebrate the current phenomenon. But we need to go beyond mere celebration if we wish for any of these politicians to provide more than the history book footnotes of Ferraro and Lieberman. There is an elephant in the room in this election. We do ourselves no favors by refusing to acknowledge it.