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"A Lesson Plan for Thinking and Talking About Race,"

by Theodore M. Shaw January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

Our nation's challenge is what it always has been: to find a place where all of its people will stand on equal footing without regard to characteristics that reflect the accident of birth. This goal cannot be reached by mere assertion that America should be "color-blind"; nor does it mean that Americans can or should expect an end to the question of race. The issue is not whether we all see race or color; the issue is, having seen it, how we treat each other. Is it a point of exclusion, or does our consciousness of race lead us to seek inclusion?

Perhaps the discourse led by the President and his Advisory Board can underscore the real nature of our race problem. It is not a matter that will be resolved with finality, as apparently some people are anxious to believe we can do before we enter into the 21st Century. America's race problem is rooted in the more unfortunate aspects of human nature: the tendency to alienate those who are different — "the others" — and treat them less kindly than those whom we think are most like us. This is not strictly an American phenomenon. We simply have our own manifestation of a problem that has plagued the human race throughout its history.

The United States is a better nation, when it comes to the issue of race, than it was 50 years ago, as are many places around the world. But progress on these issues has been incremental and slow. Perhaps the most valuable service the Race Initiative can render is to promote the idea that each generation will bear its own responsibility to fight bigotry and injustice in its time. Thus, for example, whatever the outcome of the current struggles around affirmative action, racial justice issues will remain with us.

The President's Initiative on Race will not solve "the race problem." It can help us learn how to think about and struggle with it. The issue of race in has been and is America's greatest dilemma. The Founding Fathers wrestled with it without conclusion; their unholy compromise with slavery cursed the young country with a stain of original sin that only a civil war would begin to wash away. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation African Americans were still second- class citizens. The Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education and civil rights statutes enacted in the 60s created a framework for equality. They did not, however, finally resolve America's race problem. Neither will President Clinton's Initiative.

What, then, can it do? First, it can put the issues of race in their proper context and it can give Americans a lesson plan on how to think and talk about race. The Initiative has a short life in which to accomplish something of lasting significance. We do not need another massive study of race relations. Our libraries are chock full of commission reports, studies and books on race, ranging from the work of W.E.B. DuBois, GunnarMyrdal's American Dilemma, to the 1968 Kerner Commission Report with its dire prediction of what had long been fact ("two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal"). Among the best of these works are the writings of the chairman of President Clinton's Race Initiative, the eminent scholar John Hope Franklin. From his place among America's leading historians, Dr. Franklin can illuminate how our current struggles occur against a backdrop of practice and policies that created the inequities between black and white people that mark our society today.

Even more valuable would be a national exposition of the historical role of white skin privilege, not for the purpose of assigning blame or summoning guilt but in order to illuminate the nature of current racial inequities that have affected all who are not race-privileged. This lesson will meet strong and vituperative resistance on the part of those who wish to engage in denial and "donothingism" concerning what most honest people acknowledge to be our nation's greatest challenge. Accordingly, the Advisory Board and the President must be prepared for harsh and unfair criticism, and should not compromise the integrity of their conclusions or recommendations in order to placate those who ignore or distort fact and history.

Second, the Advisory Board can attempt to put the present-day discourse on race in an appropriate multi-ethnic perspective. While the old black-white divide remains the core of America's most intractable race problems, a biracial analysis is plainly inappropriate. White supremacy and its legacy was not limited in its purpose or effect to African Americans; nor do African Americans hold claim to any special moral position when it comes to inter- ethnic relationships in a nation where racial conflict runs between many groups.
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