Back in the 80’s, the English music group the Police had a hit song “We Are Spirits in the Material World.” Not one of my favorite songs, but looking back at the lyrics, they did indeed capture what it was looking from the outside in of that material decade. Madonna (another one of my non-faves) was the “material girl,” and Tom Wolfe wrote about the golden crumbs bond traders made (as well as about social x-rays) in his great read “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
More recently, some say we are living in a post-racial society. That includes the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice John Roberts and his narrow majority (including Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito) repeatedly have struck down race conscious laws (including the Voting Rights Act enacted during Civil Rights era of the 60’s), and narrowed Supreme Court precedent supporting affirmative action as a means of eradicating inequality between the races. Which led to a great exchange last year between the Chief Justice and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in which he said “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” to which she now somewhat famously replied, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.”
I was reminded of this exchange earlier this week when I read that all-American employer, Starbucks, had adopted a policy encouraging its employees to talk to their customers about race. It seems that many segments of the media, including (no surprise here), Fox News and talk media hosts like Rush Limbaugh, but also liberal ones too, have roundly criticized Starbucks for encouraging such a discussion.
Race is the 10,000-pound elephant present in the room. Many Americans who see America as conceived in liberty don’t want to talk about it and prefer to ignore race—or say that we’ve already talked about it enough. As evidence, they cite the election of President Obama and gains made by African-Americans. Others see America as conceived in slavery (recalling that our Constitution counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation) and think that we need to have a more frank discussion about race.
Me, I’m in the Sonia Sotomayor camp. I think the justices who believe we are living in a post-racial world are wearing rose-colored blinders.
The evidence that we live in a highly race conscious world, with vestiges of racism throughout this great country of ours, has come into sharp focus this last year. Despite the great strides that we have made—and yes, we have taken giant steps forward—race is still front and center in our collective conscience and unconscience.
How else can you explain a group of Oklahoma fraternity brothers chanting racist slogans and making positive references to lynching? While Oklahoma has gotten most of the attention, sad to say that such incidents of racism are not so isolated. Similar incidents have occurred on other college campuses, including such prestigious universities as Dartmouth, Duke, and the University of Pennsylvania. These are not folks raised before the civil rights era; these are our very own children and grandchildren. What’s bred in the bone…
We can argue about what happened that dark night with Michael Brown in Missouri, or Trayvon Martin in Florida, or Eric Garner in New York, but how else can you explain the Justice Department’s recent scathing report about police conduct in Ferguson? How else do you explain the death of 12 year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland?
On a more personal level, how else can I explain the spate of phone calls I receive every year by employees who are called “nigger” (we sanitize it by calling it the “n” word) at work? Or epithets referring to African—American employees as monkeys, jungle bunnies, and all the horrible names we don’t use in polite conversation.
No, I don’t buy that we are living in a post-racial world. I applaud Starbucks (or at least its intent) and I agree with Justice Sotomayor. If we are ever going to live in a post-racial world, we need to start talking about race, not ignore it.