America wiped out years of progress. Let's have 'the race conversation' for real this time

Half a century ago, following race riots in Newark that left a nation reeling, the president of the United States appointed a commission – a panel with all the gravitas Lyndon Johnson could give it, and the mission of taking America’s “race conversation” head-on. That body that issued this sharp, devastating conclusion: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The only way to avoid this fate, the so-called Kerner Commission declared, would be a response “compassionate, massive and sustained” – action that would require of every American “new attitudes, new understanding, and above all, new will”.

For the next two decades, the United States mustered the will to continue the process of desegregation and moved toward closing racial gaps in wealth, income and education. But then, fired by the “culture wars”, it began to undo this consensus for racial justice. Predictably, the gaps got worse, and since the late 1980s, we have seen an attendant rise in resegregation.

In 1997, after a decade of these wars, President Bill Clinton signaled a possible change – perhaps even a waning of hostilities – when he announced an “Advisory Board on Race” to advise him “on matters involving race and racial reconciliation”. Clinton recast Rodney King’s famous question – “Can we all just get along?” – by asking: “Can we become one America in the 21st century?”

Although Clinton’s panel convened hundreds of meetings and developed dozens more recommendations, it merely called on Americans “to accept and take pride in defining ourselves as a multi-racial democracy”. The board’s rollout was eclipsed by the Monica Lewinsky affair, because Americans would rather talk about sex and scandal than about race and equality.

Ever since, from Barack Obama’s audacity of hope to the burning despair that accompanied Darren Wilson’s non-indictment this week, the “race conversation” has become less a reality than a rhetorical device. Every time toxic, tragic events – a killing, a fire, a riot – reveal the unequal ways that different Americans experience resegregation and state violence, we talk about having a productive conversation, but we never really have it.

Instead, we have reverted a half-century in our racial progress. Nationally, public schools are returning to levels of resegregation unseen since Brown v Board of Education. Urban gentrification debates are really about the displacement of people of color, who are often forced to move into aging, overwhelmingly non-white suburbs such as Ferguson, Missouri, or Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman.

And so we go on talking about talking, and mostly we go through the motions. When a celebrity or rich person says something explicitly racist, we make a noisy ritual of shunting them to the wings. We are able to do this because the multiculturalism movement succeeded in changing the rules of civility. It has taught us what not to say to each other, but not what to say next.

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