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Dean's blunt talk about race


HOWARD DEAN SAID, "I'm trying to gently call out the white population." His genteel example was a story he tells to voters about how his chief of staff as governor of Vermont was always a woman. After two or three years, Dean noticed that she had a "matriarchy" in the office. When the chief of staff was going to hire a new person, Dean said, he told her, " `I notice we have a gender imbalance in the office, and I wonder if you could find a man.' She said it's really hard to find a qualified man. I got everybody laughing about that."


That is Dean's icebreaker to get audiences to understand institutional racism. "The punch line of the story that it's so hard to find a qualified man is everybody does it. Everybody tends to hire people like themselves. And I get them all nodding, including the African-Americans in the audience."

He went on to talk about a consultant who runs political campaigns in Washington. The consultant was kept on to hire the staff for one of his candidates who won a city council race. "In the first staff meeting before the guy took office, they looked around and said, `Oh-oh.' Everyone was male, and everyone was African-American."

This was a softer Dean than the one excoriated by his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination for saying he wanted to appeal to white guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. For all the fire of that moment, Dean said the Democrats cannot run away from a blunt, if gently blunt, discussion about race.

"Dealing with race is about educating white folks," Dean said in an interview Tuesday on a campaign swing through the first primary state where African-American voters will have a major impact. "Not because white people are worse than black people about race but because whites are in the majority, and therefore the behavior of whites has a much bigger influence on hiring practices and so forth and so on than the behavior of African-Americans." It is unknown whether Dean's style of education will have a big influence on either white or African-American primary voters at the expense of, say, Wesley Clark's experience with affirmative action in the military or John Edwards's Clintonesque folksiness. While the Republicans have baldly capitulated to racism in modern presidential campaigns, such as appearing at Bob Jones University and claiming we are so close to a "colorblind" society that affirmative action programs can be dismantled, the Democrats have struggled to find a message that attracts swing white voters and loyal voters of color at the same.

The last Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, who was hugely popular with African-American voters, started a national discussion on race but abandoned it during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton also never challenged Republican-inspired laws that had a disastrous impact on young African-Americans and Latinos, such as mandatory sentencing and much harsher jail terms for possession of crack cocaine than for powdered cocaine.

Dean would not discuss the Clinton era. He did say that as president, he would try to end disproportionate drug sentencing and mandatory sentencing. He said he is a firm supporter of affirmative action. He said perhaps preferential points could be given to companies seeking federal contracts who can demonstrate diversity.

Dean said proactive measures are still necessary to counteract the unconscious biases that confirmed by many studies showing that job discrimination continues to be a major problem. "One generation does not make up for 15 generations of slavery and Jim Crow," Dean said.

Dean said his own education about unconscious racism began at Yale, where he graduated in 1971. He was trying to get a child from the inner city of New Haven that he was tutoring to talk "proper" English. One of his African-American roommates told him, "Why don't you leave him alone?" He said he had the "traditional white liberal idea that if black people were like us then we'd all be fine. Sort of like the Republican idea. If we all played golf at the same country club, then there wouldn't be any racial problems."

Another seminal moment was during his freshman winter. One of his roommates became a leader in the black student alliance, which resulted in frequent, large gatherings of African-American men in his dorm room. At one of these gatherings, Dean said, "I suddenly realized I was the only white person in the room, and literally the hair went up in the back of my neck. 'Cause I thought, what if it was always like this? What if everywhere in your world you were the only white person and everyone else was black? For one instant I had some tiny inkling what it was like to be black in America."

Now Dean wants to get white Americans to ask those same questions without raising the hair on their necks. If he succeeds, that would really turn the tables on America's most difficult subject.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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