Lots of people squirm when race comes up, but it keeps surfacing because we avoid dealing with it.
I mean, we try to avoid dealing with the guts of it, preferring to tinker on the surface. So this week the Supreme Court had on its plate cases involving voting rights, and what’s left of affirmative action in college admissions.
At the same time, George Zimmerman went on trial
in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a case haunted by race. And yet another celebrity lingered in the news for having said something stupid steeped in race.
We in the Northwest can’t snort at folks in other parts of the country, because we have our own issues here in Washington and in progressive Seattle.
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Too many Americans of all races are ignorant of our racial history and the current social impact of race, of the politics of it and the economics of it. And the country is too impatient to allow remedies for racism to work, so we take half-measures, then cut even those short. The Supreme Court ruling that crippled the Voting Rights Act is an example of that.
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution gave black men the right to vote in 1870, and the 19th Amendment, which was ratified in 1920, expanded that right to women.
In the case of black people in the South, neither was effective. In 1940 only 3 percent of black Southerners were registered to vote, because states found ways around federal law.
The Civil Rights Act that passed in 1965 was supposed to fix that, by requiring jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination to submit proposals that affected voting to the federal government for approval. The law has been used to protect the rights of black and Latino voters, but the ruling this week lets those jurisdictions off the hook.
All along it’s been possible for any state or county to get the feds off its back. Here’s the secret: Don’t discriminate. Jurisdictions that remained free of biased election practices for 10 years could ask to be removed from supervision, and many have.
The county in which I was born and grew up, used to be on the list, but it got off in just that way. So the ruling basically affects only jurisdictions that have an ongoing problem.
Black folks have been successful at registering and voting despite continuing efforts to prevent that, but other techniques, such as gerrymandering, have reduced the impact of those votes in some states. We could stand more oversight, not just in the South, but in Eastern Washington where Latinos, despite their numbers, are underrepresented in public office.
We still need laws to police behavior, but laws, though necessary, will never be enough to make race a nonissue. They reduce the pain, but don’t heal the malady. Healing has to happen from the inside out with a little help. Internalized change and self-policing are the ultimate solutions.
There are plenty of people like Paula Deen who are clueless, and people like Zimmerman who think they can tell who’s good and who’s bad just by looking.
Seattle Public Schools is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for racial disparities in its application of discipline. The Seattle Police Department is under a court-ordered consent decree to reform its questionable use of force.
Each generation of Americans shows less bias than the last, but we don’t make that as easy as it could be. We could be much better at moving that process along and not leaving it to chance.
Schools have a role to play in educating young people about the realities of race in America, but The Center School saga in Seattle suggests we’re not good at that yet. There were questions about how a high-school teacher handled discussions about race, and how the school district dealt with a complaint about his class. Some folks said students aren’t ready to handle race until they get to college, but that’s not true if the subject is handled well by teachers who are themselves comfortable with and knowledgeable about the topic, which, I know, is asking a lot.
And waiting until college isn’t necessarily a solution. The University of Washington had a struggle adopting a diversity requirement. Lord help us if it ever tried to teach something about justice and equality, or uttered the word “racism.”
We have to fix our painful wounds if we want to heal. The effects of our history will be with us for a long time to come, but we can continue getting better if we are willing to try. And yes, it may hurt a bit.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org