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Sally Lehrman

Bringing race to the forefront

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sally Lehrman
March 23, 2008

WITH HIS speech Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama invited the nation to "go beyond" race. But he didn't try to go "postracial," make us colorblind, or "transcend race" by stuffing our history under the mattress. Instead, Obama confronted us with the wretched residue of Jim Crow - and then asked us to move on.

Indeed, a long string of research by social scientists makes it clear that we can't just make race go away. Burying this country's history of discrimination won't do it. Electing a mixed-heritage president won't do it. All the good intentions in the world won't do it. But the approach that Obama took Tuesday could very well point the way.

First, pretending race doesn't matter doesn't fool anyone. Instead, experimental psychologists say, it pushes our responses down into our unconscious, where ideas we would actively reject reside. Consider, for instance, the implicit association tests developed to study the effects of social stereotypes on our spontaneous reactions. When researchers asked study participants to pair terms with faces, white people found it easier to link black faces with guns than with tools. Perhaps more relevant to the campaign, white participants also found it harder to see black people as equally "American" with whites or Asian-Americans.

When race goes underground, our behavior often doesn't match our intentions. That helps explain the big mistakes pollsters made in predicting the outcomes of more than half of the open Democratic primaries, according to Anthony Greenwald, an implicit association test developer who analyzed poll results. No one was playing games or lying, he says. When asked about their vote, people answered according to their conscious beliefs. But alone in the voting booth, automatic reactions took over.

Clearly, Obama faces a field full of land mines each time he brings up race. But taking on the subject, the implicit association test research has found, could allow people to act more in line with their beliefs. The more we think about the ways in which race unconsciously influences us, the less its power.

But wallowing in this country's sordid racial history would be a mistake. UCLA political scientist Frank Gilliam studies the metaphors and mental "frames" through which we understand ideas. When social justice activists talk about structural racism and white privilege, he has found, most white people shut down.

It's true that historical lending policies and Realtor practices have led to segregated cities and ongoing income inequalities. It's true that racial harassment has reached levels never before documented in the workplace, according to government data. But even when confronted with such evidence, Gilliam's white focus groups don't believe the American system is rigged against those who aren't white. They insist historic disadvantages in education, lending, and access to opportunity are behind us.

When they do acknowledge racial inequity, white study participants believe blacks and minorities cause it by refusing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Rhetoric that lingers on historical harms, Gilliam suggests, would bring up white resentment. But ignoring them denies the experience of those who are made to feel "less than" others in one everyday situation after another, whether simply shopping or enjoying a meal in a restaurant.

Obama took two critical steps in lifting the conversation beyond traded grievances. He challenged us to see the inequities created by legalized discrimination that still plague our public schools, property ownership, and job opportunities. He recognized the anger still simmering in the black community. But then, he asked us to acknowledge the bitterness white people feel when programs meant to mend historical injustice seem to work against their own chances or their children's.

Obama shifted the conversation about race, subsuming it into our shared, deeply held American dream of "a more perfect union."

The message made race concrete and raised the rhetorical stakes for pundits and politicians alike, potentially strengthening his campaign. For the rest of us, whatever our political persuasion, he offered an invitation. In order to talk about race in a truly transcendental way, Gilliam has found, we need to use language that takes us into the territory of shared values and collective interest. "We're Americans, we fix stuff," he says. And that's what we can do with our failures and fears connected to race.

Sally Lehrman reports on health and science for Scientific American.

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