Fixing the Race Problem in America: It’s Black and White

Richard Kelsey | July 14, 2016 | 3:28pm EDT
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Officer W.C. Humphrey embraces Kristen Duncan, of Arlington, Texas, during the Black Lives Matter rally on Sunday, July 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Ting Shen)

In 1980, candidate Reagan asked the American people a question that is now iconic political history.  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  He knew the answer, and he knew that the overwhelming majority of Americans had an opinion about the right answer.  Politicians of all stripes have tried repeatedly to re-create that stark, black and white choice.  As is often the case, the power of an original line is lost when the moment in time is no longer right for the message.  The message is again right.

America has a problem with race relations.  It’s a human problem flamed by profiteers who gain from division either politically or economically.  It is not simply an American problem.  Make no mistake, however, in a country where we once held blacks as property, placed them in chains, and subjugated them under the law, the stain of racism is on our soul and is still part of our modern culture.  We are not born racists: we teach racism and pass it on or down.

Do we want to fix racism in this country?  You bet.  The overwhelming majority of Americans want it eradicated, and our government and innumerable groups have fought from broadly different perspectives to combat it.  The fight has ebbed and flowed, and we have found some success and some complete failures.  Indeed, we cannot even agree on what racism is let alone how to wipe it from our culture.

On this we must agree; race relations in America are worse now than they were eight years ago.  This is not to say that President Obama is the “cause” of poor race relations.  It is to say that his prescriptions for combating racial injustice have not helped, and his leadership on the issue has served to fan the flames of racial mistrust.  I promise you that was not his intention as some of my conservative friends truly believe.  Mr. Obama grew up black in America.  His view is profoundly different from that of those who did not, and as President, he has a passion to expose racism and problems he has seen, fought, and perceived for decades.  His is a life of racial grievance, fighting the man.  Now that he is the man, his fight is about exposing the world as he sees it.  Is he wrong for that?  We judge lucid public policy based on outcomes, not intentions.  Mr. Obama has made race relations worse, even if he is only wrong for all the right reasons.

Racism is real in America … and recently Newt Gingrich told white Americans that they could never really know what it was like to grow up black in America.  He is right … dead right.  Likewise, for many minorities, they don’t know what it is like to grow up white in America.  Whiteness is not a ticket to success, nor is it a path paved by privilege.  Every individual in this country has hurdles, and the absence of color surely removes one hurdle for non-minorities.  Racism in America is worse not because white people are becoming more and more racist.  Racism in America is getting worse because we are counting and dividing by race.  We are promoting and hiring based on race.  We are suing and being sued based on race.  We are admitting and denying based on race.  We are selling and buying distrust from our leaders, churches, and family members based on race.  With that distrust, we are accepting the false narrative that all whites are racists, that they have unchecked privilege, and that they seek to oppress, deny, and punish blacks for being black.  Whites look at staggering black crime rates, gun violence, and anti-white militancy and they too become susceptible to the false narrative that blacks pose a higher risk of being a threat merely because they are black.  Who can stop it?  Not this old white guy.   

All of this happens when the emphasis of our leaders and our public policy is on our color, rather than the content of our character or the measure of our accomplishments.  We cannot and we will not succeed in a war on racism until we stop making and selling assumptions based on race – no matter our race.  The best way to attack this problem is to move to a race neutral society, where the government does not divide us by race.  It is hard to build a United States in a country where we divide each other socially, academically, or legally based on color.  We cannot be a United States when we demonize each other, attack the constructs of civil society, and assume and sell the concept that law enforcement and the justice system are designed to oppress people of color.  They are not.

Yes, racism exists in America.  However, in a country where the President is black, and Virginia, Ohio, and California are states he overwhelmingly has won, we know that “color” is thankfully not the sole measure of a man by reasonable, responsible people.  What we need now is to have more reasonable, responsible, color neutral people, governments, and organizations.  Here is what is true:  If you dislike or distrust someone because of the color of his or her skin, you may have a propensity to be racist, irrespective of the color of your skin. 

The success of America is based on a simple formula that works across any color boundary.  Get an education.  Get, and stay, married.  Raise your kids in a loving family to respect people, irrespective of color or faith.  Promote education, and encourage civil activism and volunteerism in your local community.  When we do those things, we will change our society.  If, however, we continue down a path of broken families, broken communities, race-baiting, racial profiteering, and distrust there will be no United in our states.  The answer is black and white, but it starts one household at a time, black and white.

Richard Kelsey is an Assistant Law School Dean.  A former Virginia state court law clerk and commercial litigator, Dean Kelsey was also the CEO of a technology company.  He has previously taught legal writing and pre-trial practice.  He is a regular commentator on legal and political issues in print, and on radio and TV.   His opinions are his own, and do not represent any institution or entity.  His Twitter handle is @richkelsey.

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