Where Is the Debate on Race?

Where Is the Debate on Race?

Race remains a fundamental divide in American society–so why is the issue missing from the presidential campaign?


While the nation pats itself on the back for finally offering up a serious black presidential candidate, there has been stunningly little serious discussion of racial inequality in the campaign. Tavis Smiley hosted a couple of forums and in March Barack Obama gave an impassioned speech on race, but these were the proverbial drops in a bucket where space is filled with debates over Iraq, healthcare and who has the best experience and judgment to be President. Racial inequality and what, if anything, to do about it, have not been part of the discussion. Yet race remains a fundamental divide in American society.

Some racial disputes have received attention. Whether Hillary Clinton dissed Martin Luther King Jr. in crediting LBJ for his role in enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 received some attention, as did Bill’s comment about Jesse Jackson winning the South Carolina primaries in the 1980s. Geraldine Ferraro’s comment about Obama’s good fortune for not being a white man and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s contrary views were also widely reported. More recently, Clinton’s self-proclaimed support among “hardworking…white Americans” touched off a brief firestorm. And all the networks dutifully note how the white, black and Hispanic votes have broken down in each primary.

But the reality of racial inequality, if not oppression, remains hidden in plain view. The presidential candidates and pundits have had little to say about why the typical white family has more than ten times the wealth of typical blacks and Hispanics, as Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro have reported in their pathbreaking research on wealth, let alone whether this is something that should be addressed. And there are few comments on why whites who work fulltime make 22 percent more than comparable African-American workers and 34 percent more than similarly qualified Hispanic workers, as the Eisenhower Foundation just reported in its fortieth-anniversary update of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report.

The stark reality that Princeton sociologist Devah Pager documented– that whites with a criminal record are more likely to get job interviews and offers than equally if not better qualified blacks without a criminal record–goes almost unnoticed.

Why segregation between Hispanics and whites as well as Asians and whites has increased in recent years, but remains far below the hypersegregation of African-Americans, as demonstrated by Census Bureau researchers, is rarely mentioned. Mounting evidence, provided by the Urban Institute in its 2000 Housing Discrimination Study and reaffirmed by the National Fair Housing Alliance along with other researchers, demonstrates that African-Americans and Hispanics encounter some form of discrimination in approximately 20 percent of their initial visits to a real estate sales or rental agent, and that at least 3 million instances of unlawful discrimination occur each year. Yet funding for fair housing enforcement has been steadily reduced in recent years, and there is little discussion of these problems outside the fair housing advocacy community. And justice is clearly not color-blind. As Douglas Massey reported in his new book Categorically Unequal, whereas 1 percent of white working-age males were behind bars in 2000, almost 8 percent of blacks were incarcerated. But the primary campaign speeches, debates and media coverage have been blind to these realities. They simply do not come up. Not surprisingly, little is offered to ameliorate these gaps.

Perhaps this reflects the emerging conventional wisdom: that the civil rights battles were fought and won in the 1960s, as Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell has argued. If people of color are falling behind, it is their own poor judgment and pathological behavior that accounts for this failure. As John McWhorter wrote in his 2000 book Losing the Race, “The black community today is the main obstacle to achieving the full integration our Civil Rights leaders sought.” He points to the “Cult of Victimology,” “anti-intellectualism” and other internal cultural characteristics of the black community to explain persisting racial gaps. A more visible icon of American culture, the comedian Bill Cosby, is now the most influential voice for personal responsibility when it comes to matters of race, and many follow his lead. Public opinion polls consistently show that most Americans believe it is the behavior of racial and ethnic minorities themselves, rather than discrimination, that explains persisting inequalities.

No doubt individual responsibility plays an important role in any person’s or group’s success. There can be no denying significant, if uneven, advances in race relations in recent decades. And race is clearly no longer, if it ever was, simply a matter of black and white. Still, racial and ethnic inequality persists as a central feature of American society, and discrimination is at least one significant contributing factor. But you would not know it from the current campaign. Indeed, Barack Obama himself contributes to this vacuum when he states, “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America–there’s the United States of America.”

Ironically, there is much debate in the United States over the continuing realities of racial and ethnic inequality, the underlying causes of racial inequality and what, if anything, to do about it. These discussions go on in barbershops and barrooms, among academics and some policymakers, and in many corners of American society. But this discussion is not going on among the candidates for President and the pundits reporting on the campaign. We need to openly discuss the schisms of race. This is not a question of “playing the race card.” It is a matter of informing the voters.

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