“Only racist when I’m at Walmart.” “So, could you rap for us?” “Mexican men tend to frighten me.” “No, I’m not on a scholarship.” “But I voted for Barack Obama.” “I feel uncomfortable with you here.” “People, this isn’t your grandfather’s racism.”
Four years ago, Michelle Norris founded “The Race Card Project” with the goal of making it easier to talk about “that difficult subject.” The project invites people to share their thoughts on race and cultural identity in just six words. Submissions, like the ones above, have allowed for candor on a subject that is otherwise uncomfortably avoided.
In the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a school desegregation program, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Effectively, Roberts proposed that we suppress all conscious thoughts of race and presumably expected that a world where race is no longer an issue would result.
The problem with this argument is that humans are flawed creatures. We are host to a plethora of unconscious and conscious thoughts and behaviors that are shaped by both biology and society. The vast majority of us exhibit bias toward others based on factors such as race, religion and age; it is impossible for someone to truly be “colorblind.”
One only need look to the Implicit Association Test, which measures the strength of automatic associations in people’s minds, as evidence. Results from this test show that 88 percent of whites, 75 percent of Asians and, most surprisingly, 50 percent of blacks exhibit a bias in favor of whites.
We can readily find instances of how these implicit biases affect behaviors and outcomes. In 2005, a black kindergarten student was arrested and put in handcuffs by three white police officers after she threw a tantrum in school. A 2009 report found that, although whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, blacks were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for drugs than whites.
A 2013 federal study found that, while black students made up only 18 percent of the students in their large sample, they accounted for 39 percent of students expelled and 36 percent of students arrested on campus. And recently, these biases seem to have led to tragedy on Aug. 9, 2014, when Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Yet, Chief Justice John Roberts, and many others, don’t want to talk about it.
In “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg, writes about the struggles of women working in corporate America. Sandberg discusses personal anecdotes and academic studies that highlight the misogynist actions of both men and women toward women in the workforce. Her entire book is devoted to exposing and understanding our implicit and explicit biases toward working women and how we can overcome them. It was well received for rekindling the conversation around modern sexism.
But why is it OK to talk about sexism and not about race? Why do we accept studies showing that the majority of teachers tend to favor boys over girls in the classroom, but search for flaws in studies showing that police act differently toward minorities?
In April 2014, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on using affirmative action in college admissions decisions in a 6-2 split. Although I agree with this ruling in principle, I share the frustration of Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissenting opinion when she wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
I do not think that the outdated process of affirmative action is the best method of overcoming racial discrimination in admissions or in the workplace. But, I am not sure that we should stop that process while we refuse to have the conversation necessary for us to work toward overcoming the flaws of both our human nature and our society.
As someone who received a summer internship last summer by applying through a program for women and minorities, I can say that I felt uneasy applying to a program that automatically championed me over other applicants.
I don’t want to get a job just because I’m a woman. I don’t want be overlooked for a job just because I’m a woman either. Rather, I want to get a job because I deserve the job.
We must bravely discuss what actions are needed to make this happen for me, for all women and for minorities. I want people to challenge my view on this. I want to instigate a dialogue about these issues.
It’s about time we talk about race.