Race in America

As Senator Barack Obama explores a presidential bid, media headlines across the country ask, Is America ready for an African-American president? Between 50 percent and 62 percent of Americans polled answer yes, that race is no longer a barrier in the United States. But that this is considered a newsworthy headline by all the major media outlets and that around 40 percent of those polled answer no suggests otherwise. A recent controversy in Virginia echoes the issue. A Virginia state legislator, Delegate Frank D. Hargrove Sr., a Republican from a suburb of Richmond, gave a newspaper interview on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in which he said that blacks need to get over slavery. He was stating his opposition to a resolution in the Virginia legislature to apologize for slavery and promote racial reconciliation as part of Virginia’s activities marking the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown in 1607. Officials tout Jamestown’s founding as the birthplace of our nation (predating the pilgrims’ landing in Plymouth Rock by 13 years), of representative government, of the rule of law and of American entrepreneurism. (Jamestown was settled by the Virginia Company of London in order to bring profits back to shareholders.) But Jamestown was also the birthplace of slavery in our country. Government time and tax money are being spent on the commemoration. One sponsor of the resolution, state Senator Henry Marsh, notes that while the whole world’s attention is on Virginia because of the Jamestown anniversary, Virginia can take a leadership role in promoting racial harmony. Delegate Hargrove disagrees. He argues it is counterproductive to dwell on it, noting that not a soul today had anything to do with slavery.

Some of Delegate Hargrove’s argument is attractive. It lets us all off the hook for the inequities of the past. My Sicilian and Irish great-grandparents emigrated to the United States in the 1900’s. By Hargrove’s logic, my family is not responsible for slavery or its aftermath, because we were not here when it happened. On the other hand, my husband’s family moved from Scotland and Ireland to the Chesapeake Bay region in the 1600’s. We know little of the family history, but the name is common in these parts, on both black and white faces. I laugh in the grocery checkout lane with an African-American over our shared name, Love. But later, I wonderare we related? Did someone in my family tree own someone in your family tree?

The flaw in Hargrove’s argument is that the inequities of the past persist today. Noting the achievements of African-Americans like Senator Obama, we would like to believe that we are over the race problem. But the statistics paint a more sobering picture. Dr. David Satcher, the 16th surgeon general of the United States, notes that 85,000 African-Americans died in the year 2000 due to inequality in health care. The infant mortality rate of black babies is double the infant mortality rate of white babies in the United States. African-Americans have lower life expectancies than white Americans by six or seven years. Twenty-five percent of black Americans live in poverty. One-third of African-American children live in poverty. Black poverty rates are triple those of whites. Tavis Smiley’s book, Covenant With Black America, explores many other disturbing inequities that persist in the United States today in housing, education and the criminal justice system. The Hatewatch Web site lists cross burnings and activities of white supremacist groups today, and it is possible to track the hate groups currently active in each state. The Harvard online racial bias tests have shown that millions of Americans harbor racial preconceptions. And 16-year-old Kiri Davis repeated the doll test used in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case with the same infamous results: 4- and 5-year-old black children in Harlem overwhelmingly said that the black dolls were bad and the white dolls were good and pretty. As past inequities continue into the present, we have a moral responsibility to address them.


To get over racial problems in America today, we need to understand them and their roots. But we don’t. A recent survey conducted by the University of Connecticut found that more than 19 percent of the 14,000 college students in 50 U.S. universities surveyed believed that Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech was advocating the abolition of slavery. I teach a course at Catholic University on the civil rights movement. Our students, most of them graduates of Catholic elementary and high schools, know little of U.S. or Catholic racial history.

The United States is not alone. Such debates are hallmarks of peacebuilding efforts in post-conflict societies from South Africa to Colombia. We all face these choices, balancing apologies, reconciliation, redress for past wrongs, with attention to present and future problems.

Delegate Hargrove’s suggestion that we get over the past by not bringing it up can be tempting because it is easy. Senator Obama’s vision of a post-racial politics is inviting because it is hopeful. But we are not there yet, and the only way to get there is to work through the present-day ramifications of our persistent past, not only as individuals (I don’t condone racism) but as communities (What are we doing to end unacceptable racial inequities?).

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