Opinion You cannot love America and avoid the topic of race
April 12, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
"In the 1997 film “Love Jones,” the main character is a writer and poet who tries to impress a young photographer he has just met by freestyling a poem for her at an open-mic night. The verses begin charmingly enough to win an endearing smile from her, but things take a turn when his poem ventures onto the topic of sex. Afterward, she brings this up, and he doesn’t see the issue, asking, “What’s wrong with sex?” To which she replies, “Nothing. … There’s just other topics.”
A survey of my writing quickly reveals an enduring focus on race. People have wondered why it’s such a preoccupation. They often don’t ask directly; instead, they might ask a question such as, “You served in the military; have you considered writing about leadership or national service?” The prelude to that question — “I’m tired of hearing about race all the time”— is left unsaid.
I understand the impulse. Watch the news, listen to politicians or simply talk to friends and family about the world, and there is a fair chance race will come up, often in ways that aren’t constructive. Even the hand gestures of women’s college basketball players can become fodder for arguments fundamentally about racial stereotypes and double standards. Race sensationalism is polarizing, which makes it profitable — filling hours of opinion journalism and podcasts, inspiring divisive campaigns and incentivizing conflict entrepreneurs to stoke the flames for personal and political gain.
But that’s not why I write about race. As I see it, race is seldom the actual root of a civic or policy issue. Certainly, it can be and sometimes is. Birtherism, hate crimes and even the internment of Japanese Americans (and not Americans of German or Italian descent) during World War II all stem from racist beliefs and acts. But, in my eyes, in the present-day United States, racism is better understood as the flashing light that warns us of cracks in our nation’s foundation.
If you want to know the ways in which our practice of democracy or republicanism falls short of our professed ideals, pay attention to race. Look to the struggles that racial and ethnic minorities have faced when attempting to exercise the right to vote or have their policy concerns prioritized. If you want to identify flaws in our economy, note all the instances where Black and Hispanic folks, in particular, are left behind — employment, wages, housing, wealth and credit. If you want to see the flaws in policies concerning immigration, national security, the legal system, health care, poverty and the social safety net, pay attention to the disparities experienced by those outside the racial majority.
I write about race because I care about America. That sentiment might come as a shock to some. It is rare today to hear someone who talks forthrightly about the ills of structural racism lead with a declaration of patriotism or pride in the nation’s progress. But this is squarely within the tradition of Black America, from historic stalwarts Ida B. Wells and Langston Hughes to modern-day activists such as the Rev. William J. Barber II and Colin Kaepernick.
Race isn’t the problem with the American experiment so much as it is the best indicator of the experiment’s structural problems. Consider slavery: It’s not the nation’s original sin because a significant number of White Americans enslaved Black people; it looms so large for America because the nation was supposedly founded on the idea of human equality yet allowed this grossest of inequalities to persist and expand.
The criminal justice system doesn’t need reform because it disproportionately confronts and punishes Black, Native and Hispanic Americans, but because abuse of power by the state should not be tolerated in a nation founded on the idea of government by and for the people — all people.
The racial inequalities we see in health care and education outcomes — even when controlled for class — do not exist because of Black Americans’ race or some imagined cultural carelessness, but because those systems are from a different era and poorly designed to account for Black people’s distinctive American journey. As structured, they hinder the ability to pursue happiness, stability and security unless they are tailored to the communities they serve. The democratic backsliding the nation is experiencing today is an indicator of the way race factored into the cultural, political and legislative conflicts of the past three decades.
The nation’s trouble is not that it has a racist bone that simply needs removing but that it is disturbingly slow to recognize that racism is the sharp pain that helps us locate the fractures. I write about race because finding the fractures in our society and our democracy is a necessary step toward healing and strengthening, not destroying, the whole of the nation.
Responding to the photographer’s point about there being other topics besides sex, the poet playfully asks her, “Like what?” She answers by stepping to him, pulling a pen from his jacket, and writing “Love” in the crook of his hand.
I write about race because you cannot love America and avoid the issue. Yes, there are other topics — some of critical importance — but nothing reveals where the nation is most vulnerable like the question of race. If we want a United States that more fully realizes its potential, and I believe most of us do, fixing the structural flaws revealed by race presents the most promising path."