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"Spotlight Bigorty's Covert Expression,"

by David K. Shipler January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

The Advisory Board has been charged with a dual mission: to educate and to propose. The two tasks are inextricably linked, and one follows logically on the other. Without a public that is well educated about the insidious workings of racial prejudice, there will be little popular support for proposals that are refined enough to address encrypted bias.

The only consensus on race that now prevails among Americans endorses civil rights laws as tools to attack the most blatant discrimination. But there is no agreement on the finer tools, such as affirmative action and diversity training, because they combat subtler forms of discrimination whose existence many Americans fail to recognize.

Therefore, the Board would do well to throw the Presidential spotlight on the covert expressions of anti-black bigotry that pervade American society: the quiet aversions triggered by skin color, hair styles, dress and accent; the silent assumptions about mental inferiority, dishonesty and violence; the unequal power relationships implicit in most "integrated" institutions. These images often translate into damaging behavior that obstructs blacks' opportunities. If that process can be documented by the President's Initiative, and if such exposure can raise even some Americans' consciousness of the dynamics of stereotyping, the groundwork may be laid for some serious conversation about remedies. First, the Board has to identify the problems, then it can discuss solutions. It cannot be persuasive about remedies until it lays the problems out before the public.

Prejudice is merely a thought. In this country in this time, it finds its most fertile ground out of the sunlight, in the shadows cast by facades of polite denial. It is not up to any government agency to counter people's thoughts or to interfere with people's speech. Yet if the goal of educating the public is to be met, it is essential for the Board to call attention to discriminatory actions that emanate from prejudicial thoughts. This is best done with personal testimony from blacks and whites, Asians and Hispanics. One telling anecdote makes a more vivid impression than a volume of theory. It can also trigger helpful discussion about decoding action that may or may not be racist.

Then the connection can be made between the recognition of these subtle patterns of discrimination on the one hand, and, on the other, pragmatic steps toward amelioration. The discussion should focus on which mechanisms can legitimately inhibit the conversion of bias into behavior. Society already intervenes with a multitude of tools: ethics and mores, laws and regulations, workshops and training courses. Which of these work? How can institutions and communities be encouraged to use the successful methods? What new tools can be invented?

Taking a close look at the military, many of whose approaches are easily adaptable to civilian life, can be convincing because most Americans have regard for the armed forces and will treat military leaders' discussions of race as credible. It would be dramatic and helpful to contrast the military with police departments, where racism is endemic; one persuasive argument for developing programs to attack police bias is that the tensions among black and white officers, and between white officers and non-white citizens, are undermining the criminal justice system by damaging the credibility of police evidence.

As a blend of both its educational and programmatic functions, the President's Initiative has the potential to create an information network about the disparate trends in diversity training, about programs that teach tolerance in schools, about corporate efforts to deal with racial issues among employees and other such efforts. There is too little communication now among Americans who work in this field. The Board could make a contribution by finding a way to harness the good will that is now scattered in fragments throughout the land.

David K. Shipler , a former NY Times reporter, is the author of The Working Poor: Invisible in America (Knopf, 2004) and A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America (Knopf, 1997).

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