In Arkansas: candidate or “issue” advertising that plays to racial stereotypes, and in the General Assembly, voter identification, which isn’t only about “voter fraud.”
In the larger nation: the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, affirmative action in college admissions and the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court, and in Congress immigration reform, which isn’t only about border security and economics.
We’re always going to have a “dialogue,” a “discussion,” about race, always.
It was one of the announced ambitions of the president from Arkansas, a goal that got lost in the whirlwind of “scandals” and special prosecutors, budgets and government shutdowns, mini-wars and the effort prevent others.
“That conversation never happened,” lamented Dr. Emmett Carson, who runs the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a multi-billion dollar dispensary of money for good works in the San Francisco Bay area. “We still have not had that conversation, even in the second term of Barack Obama.”
Carson and I crossed paths a few weeks ago when he came to Arkansas for a conference at (a smattering of irony here) the Clinton Presidential Library. I liked him immediately for his sense of humor, as in: “When you enter the grant-making business, you’ve had your last bad meal and your last honest compliment.”
I liked, and appreciated, him all the more when he got down to the business of the conference, which was — race. It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize intellect to demolish some of the lingering myths of color in Arkansas and America today, but Carson did it with, I thought, just the proper balance of fact and wit.
Remember those election-night effusions in 2008, those proclamations of a “post-racial” America? Mr. Obama never believed it (he has said so) and quickly enough, if gently, cautioned the optimists — as did Carson, at Little Rock, though a little less gently, arguing that their sighs of relief were as premature as their satisfaction at a color-blind culture attained. “There was no evidence of it, no proof of it — they just declared it.”
Carson, naturally, took on the broader societal view — you might call it the “I don’t want to talk about it” mindset — as “that insidious notion, that race doesn’t count,” that “skills, education, personality and luck were all that matter, and not race at all.
“I’d like to live in that world,” he smiled.
The numbers reveal a different world, a different U.S., one in which being black or Latino is defined rather less by corporate board seats and the number of minority elected officials than by infant mortality, life expectancy, joblessness, homicide deaths, per capita income and high school and graduation rates. Prisons, he continued, have become an economic engine, and — consider Arkansas, especially, here — “rural America’s economy development philosophy.”
His message, Carson’s, was not a scream at white America, just a reminder that facts matter. As was his warning to the nation’s people of color that white America cannot alone open the door to justice.
“We all get upset by (the case of) Trayvon Martin, and we should,” Carson said, “but 93 percent — 93 percent! — of black men who die of homicide are killed by other black men. We desperately need concern over black-on-black crime.” The African-
American community needs to re-direct some of its outrage, Carson continued, and offered an example from his side of the continent.
The black police chief of Oakland, Calif., confronted by a horrifying level of violent crime and drug abuse among black youngsters — killing one other, enslaving one another with dope — vowed an aggressive law enforcement campaign. Within weeks, however, he was confronted by something else — angry black parents, irate that the chief and his officers were “targeting” or “profiling” minority kids.
“I understand there are bad cops, racist cops,” Carson said, “but here was a black cop leading other black cops, trying to stop black-on-black murder! They were trying to keep those kids safe!”
The sad cyclical nature of crime in all depressed neighborhoods, and no matter the color of their residents, is nourished by factors long identified as the ingredients of despair, and Carson ticked them off — low educational attainment among adults and disinterest in their childrens’ schooling; high unemployment; single-parent households and, in boys and girls, the absence of strong male father figures; the easy availability of firearms; and a technology that offers video games as readily as good books and an ethic that favors athletics rather than academics.
Thus: “What (underprivileged) kids see disproportionately is the life they believe they have to live.”
Conversation, dialogue, anyone?
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.