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On 'Race, History, and Obama's Second Term'

February 05, 2013

Wordmapmlk 2On January 25, Washington Monthly, in partnership with the New America Foundation, marked the publication of its January/February issue by hosting a two-hour panel discussion on "Race, History, and Obama's Second Term." Led by WM editor-in-chief Paul Glastris, the panel sought to do something "that doesn't much happen in Washington...[that is,] talk frankly about questions of race."

First, though, a factoid, courtesy of political scientist Daniel Q. Gillion: President Obama -- who was sworn in to office for a second four-year term on January 21, a hundred and fifty years after Abraham Lincoln formally issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War -- mentioned race fewer times in his first two years in office than any other Democratic president since 1961.

The panelists -- Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II and a contributing editor at the Washington Post; Elijah Anderson, author of the Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life and William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale University; Taylor Branch, an award-winning author and historian; and Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation -- engaged in a conversation on race in America while answering a series of questions posed by Glastris: What is the state of race relations in America a century and a half after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation? Have we progressed as much as we like to think we have? Why are people of color in America still subject to disparities in health, wealth, education, and incarceration? What might President Obama do in his second term to narrow these disparities? And, at a time of reduced social and economic mobility, what policies that help minorities can also benefit the majority?

Blackmon discussed his book Slavery By Another Name, now a PBS documentary, which argues that contrary to popular belief, forms of slavery persisted in America for another hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Under the Thirteenth Amendment, involuntary servitude was legal as punishment for a crime and continued to impact millions of African Americans in the rural South, thanks to the efforts of white supremacists and others who, with the connivance of local and state courts, "reconfigured the criminal justice system...to force huge numbers of African Americans into hard labor." While the amendment paved the way for the short-term reconstruction of the South, said Blackmon, it also helped revitalize the cotton-based economy of the region and made possible a system that was harsher and, in many instances, more brutal than the "peculiar institution" that preceded it. The repercussions are still with us. "We can see it in the persistent disparity between whites and blacks," said Blackmon -- and that is why, he added, we must acknowledge and confront the enormity of what was done to African Americans, before and after the Civil War, if we are to fully heal and move beyond our dark past.

Next up, Elijah Anderson discussed his most recent piece for Washington Monthly, which looks at how racial prejudice in America has changed over the past sixty years by comparing the murder in Mississippi of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 and the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida last February. Beyond the fact that both were killed after purchasing candy from a local corner store, Till and Martin were both victims of what Anderson called "different strains of racial tension in America." The racism that led to Till's death, said Martin,

was embedded in a virulent ideology of white racial superiority born out of slavery and the Jim Crow codes, particularly in the Deep South. That sort of racism hinges on the idea that blacks are an inherently inferior race, a morally null group that deserves both the subjugation and poverty it gets.

The racial prejudice that led to Trayvon Martin's death is different. While it, too, was born of America's painful legacy of slavery and segregation, and informed by those old concepts of racial order -- that blacks have their "place" in society -- it in addition reflects the urban iconography of today's racial inequality, namely the black ghetto, a uniquely urban American creation....

Anderson went on to explain the concept of the "iconic ghetto," an idea rooted in older forms of racism that identified African Americans with a specific physical context -- such as the field or maid's quarters -- and which often punished them when they were encountered out of that context. Today, said Anderson, African-Americans are identified, in the minds of many Americans, with the ghetto, and when an African-American individual is encountered in, say, a wealthy neighborhood,  he or she is often "treated with suspicion, avoided, pulled over, frisked, arrested -- or worse." It is this strain of racially based tension that led to Martin's death, Anderson said, and it is one of the things that continues to hold America back from making progress on the racial front.

Taylor Branch followed Anderson at the lectern. Best known as the author of America in the King Years, his magisterial three-volume chronicle of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement, Branch explained how King was unable to get President John F. Kennedy to issue a second Emancipation Proclamation outlawing segregation on the one-hundred-year anniversary of the original proclamation. Kennedy's failure to act was a turning point for King and the movement, said Branch, because it was then that King realized he had to "go to Birmingham and essentially recreate those conditions -- not a full-fledged Civil War, but something that dramatized the moral imperative of the segregation issue in America."

Branch also noted that over the next five years the nation will celebrate a series of fiftieth anniversaries linked to crucial moments in the civil rights movement -- from the assassination of NAACP field director Medgar Evers in Mississippi in June 1963, to the March on Washington and Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech later that summer, to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Like many in the audience, Branch seemed to be looking forward to celebrating how far we've come since those violent, traumatic days, but he also noted that recent events like the shooting of Trayvon Martin serve as a reminder that too many people are "still imprisoned by a Reconstruction, post-Civil War blindness that shapes the whole landscape such that we're not even aware of it. Until we get as comfortable talking about race as we are about sports," Branch added, "we are just not there."

Last to the podium, Dr. Christopher discussed the work of the Kellogg Foundation in addressing "the legacy, not of race, but of racism -- an important distinction -- and the belief system that undergirds the history we speak of that somehow there is a [racial] hierarchy which has been embedded in every system we have and is not conscious in most of us." Christopher reminded the audience that issues of race are not simply black or white but are something that affect all of us. She explained that Kellogg partnered with Washington Monthly because media "shapes our consciousness and...project[s] a lot of the confusion [about race in America]." Moreover, the foundation believes it can play a role in helping the country heal its racial wounds by supporting media efforts to give voice to those that "have courage to tell the stories that make us who we are as a country."

Christopher added that a lot of work needs to be done to "put legs on" the unconscious bias concept and to help change the minds of people who are unaware that they are biased against a particular race or ethnic group. To that end, she briefly discussed the work of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, whose 2004 book Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds argues that people underestimate how difficult it is to persuade people to adopt a different attitude or perspectice. As hard as it may be, said Christopher, "This is the unfinished business of our time, and we must rise to the challenge [if we are] to become one America."

What do you think? Do you agree with the panelists that America still has a long way to go to realize Dr. King's dream of equality for all? If so, how might social justice funders and activists go about addressing the many barriers to change? Use the comments section to share your thoughts....

And don't forget to check out the webcast of the event.

-- Regina Mahone

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