We Still Need To Talk About Race

New polls tell us that the public’s attitudes about race relations have taken a bad hit since President Barack Obama’s historic election. Can we all get along? Obama’s election was a marvelous measure of how far we have come in race relations. His taking office revealed how far we still have to go.

It didn’t help the public’s optimism that the poll was taken days after the racially divisive acquittal of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in a confrontation last year as the teen walked home in Sanford, Florida.

The poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, which has tracked race relations since 1994, found only 52 percent of whites and 38 percent of blacks have a favorable opinion of race relations in the country.

That’s a big drop from the beginning of Obama’s first term, when 79 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks held a favorable view. It also marks a bigger drop than the 70 percent level found by the same pollsters in 2009 and 2011.

I, for one, am not surprised. We had no reason to expect any further magic from Obama, a wizard of oratory, without doing our part to continue the fabled “conversation on race” that liberals have called for since the 1960s.

It is a call that today’s conservatives tend to deride as an excuse for liberals to harangue conservatives. As Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly commented in responding to the president’s speech on race after the Zimmerman verdict, “When you hear a pundit or politician saying we should have a quote, ‘conversation’ about race, that means you are in for a sea of bloviating which will likely lead nowhere.”

Obama acknowledged as much in his speech, which he delivered from notes. However, he wisely encouraged conversations “in families and churches and workplaces,” where “there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest.”

Good idea. Americans seem to be getting along increasingly better across racial and cultural lines in their day-to-day lives than their so-called elite opinion leaders do.

Politicians and the rest of the chattering classes too often profit from inflaming conflict. It raises campaign funds — and audience numbers.

Less celebrated are the points of light I find in surprising places, like the new working relationship forged by a couple of famous Illinois foes, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush.

It began in the worst way, after Hadiya Pendleton, 15, was mistakenly gunned down in an attempted gang hit just days after she’d returned from performing with her high school at the presidential inaugural festivities in Washington, D.C.

Kirk was so outraged that he promised without much consultation with city residents to propose an ill-advised $30 million effort to round up all 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples, Chicago’s largest gang.

Rush was so outraged by that ill-advised plan that he imprudently denounced it as an “upper middle-class, elitist, white-boy solution.”

But, as a predictable array of critics, including me, denounced Rush’s racially inflammatory rhetoric, he quietly invited Kirk to a meeting. You also might call it a “conversation.”

Although details of that closed-door meeting are not widely known, Kirk has since revised his proposal. On July 18, the Senate Appropriations Committee gave bipartisan approval to a $19.5 million bill he is sponsoring to fight street gangs that have a “national profile,” like the Gangster Disciples, with more of a scalpel than the meat cleaver he originally proposed.

And Rush, along with other Congressional Black Caucus members, held the first two meetings in Washington and Chicago this past week of a National Emergency Summit on Urban Violence that they plan to take to other cities, too.

The agenda predictably includes racial profiling and gun control, but also efforts to restore family life, youth mentoring, education, job training and other ways to address the root causes of urban violence.

I don’t expect miracles. There’s no quick fix for problems as daunting as race relations and urban violence. But the search for solutions begins with honest conversations between opposing sides. In this one promising episode, Kirk and Rush show how shared outrage, like love, can bring us together — if we let it.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com)

Photo: Martin Cathrae via Flickr


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