Race Still Matters: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society

Race Still Matters: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society

On Monday, I wrote about problems with social scientific and journalistic practices of classifying people according to various traits. As a social scientist, I acknowledged that we are sometimes at a loss to know the best label to apply to a particular group, a label that would communicate to those we intended to classify that “this is your group.” I also acknowledged that dividing up the population into groups was itself problematic, revealing some truths as it obscures others about our individual and collective experiences.

With all the problems and complications and ambiguities, one might be tempted to argue that we simply stop creating categories. Let each individual’s experience, attitude and behavior be that individual’s, and let go of classifications altogether.

There was some of that thinking when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. There were those who began to debate the possibility that his large victory margin and his broad base of support indicated that we were arriving at a “post-racial America.”  Such a society would be one in which race simply would be irrelevant. The color of one’s skin (and of that of one parents, grandparents, etc.) would be as inconsequential for one’s life experiences and prospects as whether one had attached or detached ear lobes.

For one such group, a post-racial society would be the culmination of a long and costly fight against prejudice and injustice. It was what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of, a nation in which his children, and all children, “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

For another group, perhaps less euphoric, a post-racial society would be a relief. Finally, one could stop worrying about equal opportunity initiatives and representational diversity and all the rest. Race (and ethnicity) wouldn’t matter anymore, right? We wouldn’t have to keep track of it, ask about it, or consider whether or not we were considering it, and if so, whether that consideration worked to unfair advantage or to correct disadvantage. Just drop the whole discussion and move on, because society had moved on.

My social scientist colleagues have news for us: An American society in which race matters is still alive and thriving.

That is, race (and ethnicity), as a social scientific scheme of classification (and I’ll just leave it at that), still proves to be a powerful predictor of differences in experience, attitude and behavior. Take our beliefs about law enforcement.

The Gallup organization conducted a national survey on attitudes toward police in June 2015. They found that the American public’s confidence in the police had fallen to the lowest level in more than two decades.  That decline in trust was evident regardless of racial/ethnic category.

But the story is a bit more complicated than that, as this table reveals:

chart paine




Let’s convert these statistics, with an acknowledged degree of imprecision, into very practical terms.

Suppose that a white police officer kills a black resident in your city. The details are unclear; much more is to be revealed.

You find yourself participating as a representative of the city in two town hall meetings. One of those town hall meetings just happens to be attended by an audience that is overwhelmingly white, the other, overwhelmingly black.

Walking in the door of the first meeting, you “know” (statistically speaking) that more than half of your audience probably is willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt.

Walking in the door of the second meeting, you “know” that seven out of 10 attendees probably believe the worst, both about the incident and about how the police department will handle the investigation.

It is pointless to argue that either audience is wrong. At the moment of your encounter with them, this is what they believe, and it is likely to manifest itself in their behaviors.

Race matters. Like it or not, want it to be true or not, it still matters.

And because it matters, we need to understand how race continues to play a role in people’s experiences, beliefs and attitudes. We need to learn new ways of thinking about the experience of race. We need to learn how to drop our defensiveness and listen to each other. And we need to be willing to accept that our diverse experiences of diversity are our experiences, our truth as we come in the door.

Our truth, whatever it is, is only part of the truth. A fuller appreciation requires a fuller hearing, and a desire not only to be heard, but to hear and to understand.

That’s why you’ll find me at the REAL regional summits on April 21 and April 22.

And it’s why I hope I’ll see you there.