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"Include All of Us,"

by Frank H. Wu January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

In another era, the question might have been rhetorical. In our age, it is more of a plea than an inquiry. In his June 14, 1997 commencement address at the University of California-San Diego, President William Jefferson Clinton asked, "Can we become one America?" Clinton continued by announcing his self-conscious intention to make history by "lead[ing] the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation about race.

As President Clinton introduced the Race Initiative's Advisory Board, the members of the panel immediately fell to arguing amongst themselves about whether the subject of their study is literally black and white or if it is more multi-hued. Their disagreement must be addressed before racial healing can begin.

On one side is the group's chair, African American scholar John Hope Franklin, whose book From Slavery to Freedom has become a contemporary classic. Franklin has stood firm with his commitment to focusing on the "American dilemma." Since Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal coined that term a half century ago, it has meant specifically the circumstances of blacks in this country — although Franklin probably would disagree strongly with the ghost of Myrdal on prescriptions for public policy.

On the other side is the only Asian American appointee, Angela Oh, a criminal defense lawyer who emerged as a spokesperson after the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict. Oh has advocated a "new paradigm." Using the idea of a "paradigm shift," a fundamental change in our understanding, from the late philosopher Thomas Kuhn, Oh means an approach that considers red, brown and yellow as well as black and white.

Both Franklin and Oh are right, but each sees only half the picture. They have already declared that their dispute has been exaggerated, and their words revealed differences in attitudes more subtle than significant, but they aren't the only ones who disagree. Franklin commands the authority of history. The most significant racial divide of our society has been the color line between black and white. Historically, whether by slavery or through Jim Crow, white supremacy concentrated its force on blacks. Even today, African Americans bear the brunt of racial discrimination in concrete cases of infant mortality, police brutality, housing segregation, employment opportunities, income differentials, and in every context where prejudice can be practiced. Asian Americans, Latinos and others as racial groups cannot make the same claim.

But Oh is also correct as a factual matter. There have always been folks who belong here who are neither black nor white, whether Native Americans, Latinos, Asian immigrants or mixed-race individuals. Increasingly, in many urban areas and on most college campuses, African Americans are not the most numerous of the nonwhite groups. Many racial minorities who fall into the category of "other" have suffered in their own way, ranging from annexation of their territory to exclusion from citizenship. Instead of making an impossible choice between Franklin and Oh, perhaps a modest suggestion is in order: whatever we conclude about race relations, we should start by including all of us. Whether we seek moral principles or practical compromises, our vision must encompass everyone. Our leaders should speak to all individuals, about every group, and for the nation as a whole. Racism against African Americans, more than other forms of racial discrimination, requires our attention. Adding non-black racial minority groups, rather than detracting from the urgency of addressing racism against African Americans, may help our understanding. As we try to resolve our tensions over race, the most important ideal we must remember is that we all share a stake in our society. The presidential Race Initiative must start with that truism, but it will need to do much more.

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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