In the aftermath of high-profile racial incidents (Shirley Sherrod, Henry Louis Gates, heck, the election of Barack Obama), mainstream pundits and writers have wondered aloud about the country's inability to talk sensibly about race. Perhaps most representative of this confusion was Matt Bai's lament in The New York Times: "Why haven't we moved beyond the old, stultifying debate in the age of Obama?"
Here is my guess.
As Americans, we insist on treating race as its own "thing" to be separately dealt with. Instead of a continuing dialogue, we have the occasional forum for grievance inspired by the controversy du jour. Indeed, it's safe to say that we only ever talk about race when it's impossible not to: in 2008, when the presidential election brought Jeremiah Wright into the spotlight; last year, when President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court; and again, when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his Cambridge home. At each point, race rushed into public view, vanishing as soon as the public lost interest in the story.
Of course, you can't treat race as a box to be checked off. Not only is race a crucial part of American identity; it's impossible to talk about policy in this country without also, somewhere, mentioning race. Indeed, to talk about race as if it were some "thing" apart is to deny the central role it plays in nearly every aspect of American life.
In short, the problem with our "national conversation on race" is that we refuse to acknowledge race as a basic fact of American life. We bury our heads in the sand and pretend to live in a country where there isn't systemic, institutionalized racism and where talking about race is somehow counterproductive to governing.
So, to answer Bai's question, we'll finally move beyond those old, stultifying debates, when we learn to integrate race into our normal discussions of policy and focus on the substantive questions that make race an incredibly pressing concern.
Take financial reform: African American and Hispanic communities were devastated by the foreclosure crisis and subsequent recession. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, 7.9 percent of African Americans and 7.7 percent of Hispanics who were new owners or had newly refinanced lost their homes to foreclosure between 2007 and 2009. By contrast, only 4.5 percent of whites suffered similarly. And that's to say nothing of the fact that the recession has all but wiped out recent wealth gains made by blacks, greatly exacerbating the wealth gap between African Americans and their white counterparts. According to a recent report by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, median wealth holdings among high-income African Americans dropped to less than half of those for middle-income whites.
Or take health-care reform, which dominated the national conversation for almost a year. Countless studies have documented the stark disparities in access and treatment for minorities; according to a 2008 report by the Office of Minority Health, the "uninsurance rate" was 19.5 percent for African Americans and 32.1 percent for Hispanics. For whites, that rate was 10.4 percent. In 2005, African American adults were twice as likely as white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes, and 2.2 times as likely to die from it. The American Cancer Society has found that for most cancers, blacks are diagnosed at advanced stages, and that HIV/AIDS continues to be one of the leading causes of death for young African Americans.
In a world where race is part of each discussion, these facts would be out in the open. During congressional hearings, questioners would -- in addition to everything else -- ask about the effect of proposed legislation on minority communities. Legislators would be aware of the unique circumstances faced by historically disenfranchised minorities, and seeking legislative ways to alleviate disparate effects wouldn't be beyond the pale.
In fact, given how race permeates nearly everything, you can easily imagine race playing out with every issue that enters public discussion: Our discussion of unemployment insurance would include regular reference to the fact of 15.4 percent joblessness among African Americans (compared to 8.6 percent for whites). Our discussion of housing policy would make specific reference to the isolated, hyper-segregated neighborhoods of the inner city, and our discussion of crime would spark a broader conversation on the staggeringly high numbers of black and Hispanic men in prison.
None of this is to say that we would avoid racial controversies. Rather, as is the case with everything, practice makes perfect. The more we can talk about race in a substantive context, the more comfortably we can talk about race, period. Indeed, by regularly engaging with race, and on matters of policy especially, we can train ourselves to move beyond the typical arguments -- "This is racist! No it isn't!" -- and toward a more nuanced discussion of racial issues.
Admittedly, this is a somewhat idealized vision of the national conversation -- Americans have never been particularly enthusiastic about race or policy -- but it gives us something to aim for: an America where race isn't off-limits or restricted to certain times of the year but always part of our dialogue.