Race remains an uncomfortable topic in U.S.

BY SIMEON TALLEY | JULY 30, 2009 7:11 AM

To talk honestly about race is such a difficult thing to do. Even in the age of Barack Obama, the first black president, we find ourselves tiptoeing gingerly around the explosive and sensitive issue of race in America. We only talk about race during extreme examples when we are forced to.

Take, for example, the arrest of the African American Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates. Initially, many were quick to cite this as an example of racial profiling. We now know that Gates’ arrest by a white police officer is a bit more nuanced and complicated than initially thought.

Still, we’re often consumed with warmth and goodwill — rightfully so — about how far America has come, displayed by its ability to elect Obama.

But the truth is we really don’t want to talk about race. Reasonable people of good conscience can all condemn black kids in Philadelphia being turned away from an all-white swimming pool. And most Americans were overwhelmingly proud the day Obama took the oath of office to become the 44th president of the United States. Whether black or white, Latino or Asian, we recognize for the most part the politically appropriate way to respond when the issue of race comes up.

Yet in a world increasingly interconnected, there are profound differences that still divide us on this issue. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Our country has made tremendous progress on issues of race and equality. The election of Obama epitomizes that. Yet walking the streets of New York City, Chicago, and even Iowa City it becomes painfully obvious how far we have left to go.

Disparities exist everywhere. You name it — health, income, education, incarceration rates — and a gap exists. Stick your finger in the air, think of the first quality of life or economic opportunity indicator that comes to mind, and there’ll be racial disparity.

To move forward we must be able to talk honestly about these issues. We have to think differently about these issues.Moving forward requires us not to fall into simple and neat explanations of what our differences may be. We live in a society where the legacy of racism has endowed all of us with certain structural and institutional biases and advantages for whites. Although outright blatant examples of racism are decreasing, they still happen and are painful.

Yet despite the persistency of racism, most African Americans are well aware that at the end of the day what an individual does and the choices that individual makes will ultimately determine her or his life outcome.

All of us, regardless of race, need to be more personally responsible and accountable to ourselves and to each other. And at the same time we must address structural inequities that plague our society.

The American experience with race is not over, it has not gone away. But we must talk about it with people who look different from us. We must talk about race with people who have different life experiences than us. Most important of all, we must be willing to listen and genuinely try to understand the perspectives of those we don’t agree with.

This country has made tremendous progress on race and a whole host of other issues. We’ll likely continue to make more progress in the future. Yet progress isn’t inevitable, and it just doesn’t happen all by itself.

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