A New York Times/CBS News poll this week suggests the nation's racial climate has been dramatically changed by the election of America's first biracial president, with an apparently record high 66 percent of Americans saying race relations are good. But don't think that because people are feeling more positive about race relations that we are entering an era where we can begin to treat race is irrelevant.
Quite the contrary, says john a powell, the director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, who warns in an interview with me that progressives as well as conservatives are badly misreading the racial landscape that the country has entered in the age of President Obama.
powell is leading a new organization, Americans for American Values, that will look at the nation's continuing racial disparities from a different angle from how it has been frequently addressed. While much of the debate around race has focused on conscious attitudes (which is what was being measured by the Times/CBS poll) and behavior, Americans for American Values will focus on unconscious bias and how that bias affects our educational, economic and social institutions.
"The research shows that unconscious bias is actually fairly high throughout the whole population. And it can be manipulated, or influenced, by the showing of images, telling of stories, hearing certain buzzwords," powell says in the interview. This bias affects individual behavior and, from a public policy perspective, leads us to embrace and adopt policies and programs that end up having a racially disparate effect, even if that effect was unintended. "We need to be aware that we can be biased and that can affect our behavior even when we don't want to be," powell says.
powell calls the "practices, cultural norms, and institutional arrangements" that grow out of this bias "racialization," and wrote about its implications in detail in an article published in the Denver University Law Review. He uses the term, he wrote in the article, because "the language of race and racism is understood in a way that is too limited and specific to help us acquire greater insight into the important questions posed" by today's racial realities in America.
Progressives, powell says, are as susceptible to accepting racialization as conservatives. "The failure to actually embrace race in a constructive, much more sophisticated way is one of the great failures of the progressive movement," he says.
It is not enough to pursue "race-neutral" policies or to use proxies for race, such as poverty, powell says. For example, in the absence of structural changes in patterns and practices that leave African Americans and women underrepresented in construction trades, the money in the economic recovery bill that is now being poured into infrastructure projects will invariably end up benefiting whites and males more than African Americans and females, powell says.
Americans for American Values will operate under the auspices of the Institute for America's Future and will conduct research into how racialization influences policy and how policies can be changed so that they are more fair and address continuing racial inequities. The project is supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
powell will be a speaker at the America's Future Now! conference in Washington June 1-3.
"What we want to do is help America to understand how race continues to operate—in interesting ways and in measurable ways—and undermine our values" of "a racially fair and racially inclusive society," powell says.
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