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"What's In It For Us?,"

by Bob Wing January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

What is our self interest in participating in Clinton's media spectacle of racial dialogues? It would do us well to remember the adage that learned conversation is either the affectation of the ignorant or the profession of the mentally unemployed. So, before we agree to offer up some local color to President Bill's photo-op. we might want to come clear on what we might actually get out of a real discussion about race, race relations and racism.

What, then, is the point of participating in the Initiative? The only reasons I can conjure up are: one, to try to leverage some resources and/or policies from the government to promote racial justice; or two, to try to focus and reshape public opinion about racism and how to combat it. In short, we need real goals, actual content and a process that involves a broad spectrum of people of color as well as whites.

For a specific area of discussion, given the retreat around affirmative action and the lack of resources currently available for enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, I'd argue for a focus on the role that big institutions, especially government, might play in promoting racial equity. One point of entry might be john powell's recent proposal for "racial impact statements," modeled after the now ubiquitous environmental impact statements. Under this proposal, the racial impact of large-scale government and/or corporate policies, programs, economic ventures, etc. would be estimated and publicly debated before being implemented. Such statements might actually help pin big institutions down as to what they are doing that disadvantages people of color (and privileges whites).

Why shouldn't government at all levels be required to say what their racial policies and plans are (similar to their economic or health policies and plans)? They should have to explain to all of us how they are going to improve racial equity and then let us know whether they actually did it. I am tired of the public debate about race being dominated by demagogues and have no patience for the idea that immutable and supposedly color-blind market forces" are totally outside our control, no matter how much damage they do. A highly unlikely but positive outcome of the Initiative would be the simple notion that the government and private sector should have to take responsibility for the racial outcomes that they produce, and that the public has the right to debate their roles.

Aside from policy goals, there are other important thematic areas around which the dialogues can be organized: the not-so-subtle racial coding of social issues like crime and welfare; the racialization of immigration policy and how new immigrants are restructuring the demographic landscape; the implicit relationship between race and economic dynamics; and the new discovery of whiteness, especially its link to white privilege.

Finally, if the Initiative is to include more than a few elite scholars and policy wonks, it needs a more definite structure, timetable and process. The so-called dialogues will only have positive impact insofar as many people of color are involved and are able to generate both deeper analytical discussions and proactive policy goals. If the Initiative were more grounded, more accessible and more committed to clear outcomes, more people and organizations might actually be motivated to participate in the process, and there might actually be a dialogue.

Bob Wing is Director of the Emerging Radical Formations Programs at the Applied Research Center in Oakland, CA.

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