Why Conversations on Race Usually Fail

We can't just talk about racism during a big national story. We need constant dialogue.


It allows Jonah Goldberg to write in the Los Angeles Times that racism currently exists only in “pockets,” Ann Coulter to compare calls for justice in Trayvon’s death to a lynch mob and Pat Buchanan to refer to this situation as an “exacerbation of and the exploitation of racial conflict.” To honestly believe any of these assertions requires cultural blindness and a deep misreading of history, one in which the lives of marginalized people do not exist unless they serve the self-aggrandizing agenda of the controlling group.

When racism exists only in the extreme in the dominant historical narrative and the public imagination, it’s not difficult to understand why the conversation becomes stalled. We understand racism as the domain of slaveholders and violent segregationists, cross-burning members of the Ku Klux Klan and ignorant Southerners. Racists possess cold, black hearts and eyes that become engorged with blood and hate at the sight of skin that differs from their own. And they can be defeated only by the good-natured and colorblind folks who believe in one race: human.

Of course, that isn’t true in the slightest. Racism doesn’t require vicious hatred — only passive acceptance of an idea of human hierarchy based on mostly arbitrary differences. It is internalized beliefs about the inferiority of one group that in turn grants power and privilege to another. Racism is not a battle of good vs. evil, of individual actors of a heroic or demonic nature determining the worth of people. It is a story of subjugation, exploitation, resistance and the messy complexities that make humanity so intriguing. We would know that if we bothered to study.

In a best-case scenario, Trayvon’s death should allow for a moment in which we re-evaluate the way we think racism operates. Racism need not be overt or expressed only in the use of racial epithets. Racist ideas can and do lie in the subconscious, since we are all bombarded with racist images and messaging every day. Racism exists in the fabric of what makes America America, and we make judgments of people based on those ideas without necessarily meaning to do so. And while this affects all of us, whether black, Latino, Asian or other, white Americans are the only group that actually benefits from this system.

Instead, the killing of Trayvon Martin has become another opportunity for some to deny the existence of racism and distort the history of race. And once again, we have a national conversation on race in which everyone talks past one another and nothing gets resolved.

Attorney General Eric Holder said that when it comes to race, we are a nation of cowards. Perhaps, but the real obstacle in having a conversation about race is that some of us are terribly ill informed.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental-health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.

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