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""One America" Needs to be More Than a Nice Slogan,"

by Frank H. Wu November/December 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

The "One America" race panel has been and should be criticized for many reasons: lack of purpose; attention to feelings over reality; emphasis on talk rather than action; etc. Yet with the release of the Advisory Board's report and its recommendation of continuing public discourse, the initiative has lived up to at least part of its promise. It has forced people to confront racism as much as race. It is better than benign neglect, but below the level of praise.

The report deserves support from progressives who care about civil rights for two reasons - not to mention that some attacks against it are explicitly also attacks on any systematic efforts to comprehend or address racial discrimination.

First, the report states that historic racial discrimination imposed on African Americans must be recognized. It also does not shrink from stating that such subordination continues to have contemporary effects. It notes contemporary forms of bias, ranging from the violence of hate crimes to the subtlety of assumptions based on stereotypes.

These might appear to be simple observations of fact. But the dominance of reactionary sentiments on campuses and television and radio talk shows has made even these concessions difficult to gain, other than as rote dismissals of what once was awful but no longer needs to be considered. The pseudo-scientific claims of The Bell Curve and The End of Racism have persuaded much of the public that people who are suffering are genetically inferior or culturally pathological; they deserve their condition.

Second, the report urges community responses. The initiative's manages to defend affirmative action. Its town hall meetings, despite their amateurish group therapy aspects and the media coverage devoted to white supremacists disrupting sessions, display a faith in consensus that may be naive but is needed. The combination of public and private efforts cataloged as "best practices" share the premise that individuals and groups can make meaningful contributions.

This too might seem to be an easy tendency toward justice. But the regressive shifts in public policy have reduced our optimism and even interest in social change. The movements of law and economics and evolutionary psychology, with their popular versions, assure us that self-interest is not only rational but natural; we are doing our best if we care about only ourselves.

In both these respects, the report serves the task of translating. Its findings will be useful to advocates. The document summarizes scholarly research - for example, its discussion of wealth differences related to race and its description of Latinos and Asian Americans - that was cutting edge long ago. Thanks to the official presentation and the bureaucratic style, however, the academic studies acquire an extra authority.

The "One America" project will have whatever importance we give it. Gunnar Myrdal's Carnegie Foundation-funded "American Dilemma" and the Kerner Commission's crisis management, both of which this latest endeavor matches in ambition but not stature, are remembered for their general good intentions more than they are acclaimed for their specific positive achievements.

If "One America" is to be better than a nice slogan, it will require resources, work, and committed leadership who will confront the opposition.

Frank H. Wu is an Associate Professor at Howard University Law School. His book Beyond Black and White is from Basic Books.

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