Why National Dialogue on Race Is Needed

Many have disagreed with the concept. But a dialogue could go a long way toward jump-starting healing.

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Community groups, universities and colleges, civic organizations, churches, synagogues and civil rights activists have natural constituencies to organize single panels or all-day symposiums to which students and surrounding community members would be invited to join in the conversation. Citizens seeking to participate might attend a live local event or simulcast of an event at a different location, stream an event online from their own computers and/or share their thoughts on social media with the hashtag #NDRD. Event organizers would publicize their affiliation with NDRD both on and offline. Ideally, a National Dialogue on Race Day could simultaneously occur in every community across the nation, and even those unable to organize such an event locally could easily participate online.

Ella Baker, the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, famously remarked that "strong people don't need strong leaders." Neither the African-American community nor the nation as a whole can afford to wait on politicians to lead a discussion that will cast a strobe light on issues of inequality, racism and injustice. It's uncomfortable because we're out of practice -- but we need to do it anyway.

The aftermath of the Supreme Court's recent voting-rights and affirmative action decisions, as well as proliferating urban violence, poverty and mass incarceration, make this conversation more necessary now than ever. A deliberate, widespread dialogue among American citizens is critical to push forward the transformation of our democratic institutions. Now is the time to revisit the energy and activism of the March on Washington to revive the goal of racial justice.

The same summer as the march, in a national television address to the nation, President John F. Kennedy defined institutional racism as a "moral" issue that reverberated through political institutions. Two months later Martin Luther King Jr., during his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, proclaimed that African Americans had come to the nation's capital to cash a check that had been marked "insufficient funds." King refused to believe, in his words, that the bank of American democracy could be bankrupt. Despite evidence to the contrary, many Americans of diverse backgrounds continue to believe in King's dream of racial equality and economic justice.

President Obama's recent admission that we are not in a "postracial" nation goes a long way toward combating the "colorblind" racism that stubbornly declares racial equality while ignoring growing social, economic and political disparities based on race. But politicians cannot lead this national conversation.

We are capable of being the architects of the democracy in which we want to live. This requires confronting racism openly and educating our fellow citizens that merely discussing, recognizing or "seeing" race does not make one a racist. The idea that one does not "see" race should be reserved for the political satire of Stephen Colbert and not be viewed as a serious political perspective. Only by seeing race can we begin to transform public policy and democratic institutions.

America is well on its way to becoming a majority-minority nation, but we still too often think and speak about race in binaries. A National Dialogue on Race Day should rightfully include the diverse racial and ethnic panorama that makes up 21st-century America.

As we approach the cusp of the 50th anniversary of King's dream, a national conversation on race and democracy led by activists, scholars, community organizers and active citizens will help us reimagine American democracy while confronting the social, political and racial injustices that threaten King's dream and our own. 

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter. 

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Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A LifeFollow him on Twitter.

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