Twelve Steps Toward Racial Harmony

AMERICANS HAVE LITTLE ALTERNATIVE BUT TO ACCEPT THE POSSIBILITY THAT race will continue to divide us. Yet it is clear that society is more hospitable to minorities and more--racially--egalitarian than it was a few generations ago. There is every likelihood that it can become more so. Hence, we have to ask the question--if only as an experiment in thought: Do we have the vaguest idea how to create a society that is truly race neutral? The short answer, I suspect, is no. Otherwise we would be much further along the way than we are. Still, I believe we can get beyond such platitudes as ""Let's just love one another,'' which is the verbal equivalent of throwing up our hands in noble resignation. Enumerating steps our society could take toward racial sanity is obviously not the same as putting America's racial goblins to rest. It is, however, a necessary prelude to moving the dialogue beyond the realm of reassuring yet empty platitudes. So what would some of those steps be?

1 WE MUST STOP EXPECTING TIME TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM FOR US: In ""Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,'' there is a scene in which Sidney Poitier (who plays a physician in his thirties in love with a young white woman) turns, in a fit of rage, to the actor playing his father. Only when the older generation is dead, Poitier declares, will prejudice wither away. The sobering realization is that Poitier is now older than his ""father'' was then, and the problem, obviously, remains.

Time doesn't heal all wounds; it certainly doesn't solve all problems. It is often merely an excuse for allowing them to fester. Our problems, including our racial problems, belong to us--not to our descendants.

2 WE MUST RECOGNIZE THAT RACE RELATIONS IS NOT A ZERO-SUM GAME: The presumption that America is a zero-sum society, that if one race advances another must regress, accounts, in large measure, for the often illogical reaction to programs that aim to help minorities. Such thinking even explains some of the hostility between members of so-called minority groups. Can only one person of color rise within a given organization? One hopes not. Does an increase in Latino clout portend a decline in blacks' well-being? It shouldn't.

Unfortunately, we have too often reveled in political rhetoric that puts across the opposite message; and have too often rewarded those who exploit our anxiety and insecurities--as opposed to those who demonstrate the willingness and ability to harness our faith in each other and in ourselves.

3 WE MUST REALIZE THAT ENDING HATE IS THE BEGINNING, NOT THE END, OF OUR MISSION: Occasionally, I turn on my television and am greeted by some celebrity exhorting me to stop the hate. I always wonder about the target audience for that particular broadside. I suspect that it is aimed mostly at people who don't hate anyone--perhaps as a reminder of our virtue. I certainly can't imagine a card-carrying member of the local Nazi group getting so fired up by the message that he turns to the television and exclaims, ""Yes, you're right. I must immediately stop the hate.''

Stopping the hate does little to bring people of different races or ethnic groups together. Certainly, it's better than stoking hate, but discrimination and stereotyping are not primarily the result of hatred. If we tell ourselves that the only problem is hate, we avoid facing the reality that it is mostly nice, nonhating people who perpetuate racial inequality.

4 WE MUST ACCEPT THE FACT THAT EQUALITY IS NOT A HALFWAY PROPOSITION: This century has seen huge changes in the status of black Americans. It has also seen the growth of largely segregated school systems, the development and maintenance of segregated neighborhoods, and the congealing of the assumption that blacks and whites belong to fundamentally different communities. The mistake was in the notion that social, economic, and political equality are not interrelated, that it was possible to go on living in largely segregated neighborhoods, socialize in largely segregated circles, and even attend segregated places of worship and yet have a workplace and a polity where race ceased to be a factor. As long as we cling to the notion that equality is fine in some spheres and not in others, we will be cling- ing to a lie.

5 WE MUST END AMERICAN APARTHEID: Americans have paid much homage to Martin Luther King's dream of a society where people would be judged only by the content of their character--even as they have yanked children out of schools when a delicate racial balance tipped, or planted themselves in neighborhoods determinedly monochromatic, or fought programs that would provide housing for poor blacks outside of the slums. There is something fundamentally incongruous in the idea of judging people by the content of their character and yet consigning so many Americans at birth to communities in which they are written off even before their character has been shaped.

6 WE MUST REPLACE A PRESUMPTION THAT MINORITIES WILL FAIL WITH AN EXPECTATION OF THEIR SUCCESS: When doing research with young drug dealers in California, anthropologist John Ogbu found himself both impressed and immensely saddened. ""Those guys have a sense of the economy. They have talents that could be used on Wall Street,'' he remarked. ""They have intelligence--but not the belief that they can succeed in the mainstream.'' Somewhere along the line, probably long before they became drug dealers, that belief had been wrenched out of them.

Creating an atmosphere in which people learn they cannot achieve is tantamount to creating failure. The various academic programs that do wonders with ""at-risk'' youths share a rock-hard belief in the ability of the young people in their care. These programs manage to create an atmosphere in which the ""success syndrome'' can thrive. Instead of focusing so much attention on whether people with less merit are getting various slots, we should be focusing on how to widen--and reward--the pool of meritorious people.

7 WE MUST STOP PLAYING THE BLAME GAME: Too often America's racial debate is sidetracked by a search for racial scapegoats. And more often than not, those scapegoats end up being the people on the other side of the debate. ""It's your fault because you're a racist.'' ""No, it's your fault because you expect something for nothing.'' ""It's white skin privilege.'' ""It's reverse racism.'' And on and on it goes. American culture, with its bellicose talk-show hosts and pugnacious politicians, rewards those who cast aspersions at the top of their lungs. And American law, with its concept of damages and reparations, encourages the practice of allocating blame. Although denying the past is dishonest and even sometimes maddening, obsessing about past wrongs is ultimately futile.

Certainly, loudmouths will always be among us and will continue to say obnoxious and foolish things, but it would be wonderful if more of those engaged in what passes for public discourse would recognize an obvious reality: It hardly matters who is responsible for things being screwed up; the only relevant question is, ""How do we make them better?''

8 WE MUST DO A BETTER JOB AT LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD: As long as roughly a third of black Americans sit on the bottom of the nation's economic pyramid and have little chance of moving up, the United States will have a serious racial problem on its hands. There is simply no way around that cold reality. It is pointless to say that the problem is class, not race, if race and class are tightly linked.

During the past several decades, Americans have witnessed an esoteric debate over whether society must provide equality of opportunity or somehow ensure equality of result. It is, however, something of a phony debate, for the two concepts are not altogether separate things. If America was, in fact, providing equality of opportunity, then we would have something closer to equality of racial result than we do at present. The problem is that equality of opportunity has generally been defined quite narrowly--such as simply letting blacks and whites take the same test, or apply for the same job.

Equality of opportunity is meaningless when inherited wealth is a large determinant of what schools one attends (and even whether one goes to school), what neighborhoods one can live in, and what influences and contacts one is exposed to. In Black Wealth, White Wealth, sociologists Melvin Oliver and Tom Shapiro pointed out that most blacks have virtually no wealth--even if they do earn a decent income. Whites with equal educational levels to blacks typically have five to ten times as much wealth, largely because whites are much more likely to inherit or receive gifts of substantial unearned assets. This disparity is a direct result of Jim Crow practices and discriminatory laws and policies.

America is not about to adopt any scheme to redistribute resources materially. What Americans must do, however, if we are at all serious about equality of opportunity, is to make it easier for those without substantial resources to have secure housing outside urban ghettos, to receive a high-quality education, and to have access to decent jobs.

9 WE MUST BECOME SERIOUS ABOUT FIGHTING DISCRIMINATION: In their rush to declare this society colorblind, some Americans have leaped to the conclusion that discrimination has largely disappeared. They explain away what little discrimination they believe exists as the fault of a few isolated individuals or the result of the oversensitivity of minorities.

Making discrimination a felony is probably not a solution, but more aggressive monitoring and prosecution--especially in housing and employment situations--would not be a bad start. Just as one cannot get beyond race by treating different races differently, one cannot get beyond discrimination by refusing to acknowledge it. One can get beyond discrimination only by fighting it vigorously wherever it is found.

10 WE MUST KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING: Dialogue clearly is no cure-all for racial estrangement. Conversations, as opposed to confrontations, about race are inevitably aimed at a select few--those who make up the empathic elite. Yet, limited as the audience may be, the ongoing discourse is crucial. It gives those who are sincerely interested in examining their attitudes and behavior an opportunity to do so, and, in some instances, can even lead to change.

11 WE MUST SEIZE OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTERRACIAL COLLABORATION: Even those who have no interest in talking about the so-called racial situation can, through the process of working with (and having to depend on) people of other races, begin to see beyond skin color. Conversation, in short, has its limits. Only through doing things together--things that have nothing specifically to do with race-- will people break down racial barriers. Facing common problems as community groups, as work colleagues, or as classmates can provide a focus and reduce awkwardness in a way that simple conversation cannot.

12 WE MUST STOP LOOKING FOR ONE SOLUTION TO ALL OUR RACIAL PROBLEMS: Meetings on racial justice often resemble nothing so much as a bazaar filled with peddlers offering the all-purpose answer. The reality is that the problem has no single or simple solution. If there is one answer, it lies in recognizing how complex the issue has become and in not using that complexity as an excuse for inaction. In short, if we are to achieve our country, we must