Are Race Relations Improving?

tom_honig_sNearly two years ago, America elected its first African-American president. Observers by the score commented on the significance of a biracial president, and wondered whether it finally signaled that race relations had improved in America.

So have the intervening months proved anything about prejudice? Do minorities now feel that all things are possible in America? Do whites feel free of their own prejudices?

Of course not. The election of a president doesn’t really change lives in ways that the columnists predict. It’s easy in retrospect, for example, to comment on America’s changing attitudes when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was elected—but at the time his religion really wasn’t any sort of attitude game-changer.

We still have our eruptions over race. Most recent was the outrage in some quarters over the verdict in the killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland. BART policeman Johannes Meserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter—a verdict that was seen by some as a slap on the wrist.

It’s unfortunate that these very public issues start to define the racial issue in America, because the reality behind race relations is nuanced and complex.

First, consider this. It’s risky for an aging white Baby Boomer like me to even weigh in on the subject. After all, white privilege is hardly imagined, and I’ll never know what it’s like to step out into the world in dark skin that can’t be removed—ever. Especially here in Santa Cruz.

For example, did you ever notice at any kind of government or neighborhood meeting in Santa Cruz that there are, at most, one or two black faces? Even in a population with an increase in Latinos, most public events here in town are remarkably white.

Racial issues, frankly, are easy to ignore if you’re white and live in Santa Cruz. That’s no one’s fault, really, and it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Years ago I attended a newspaper editors’ seminar in which a presenter discussed ways of diversifying management in the newsroom to better reflect a diverse population. A good-hearted editor from Idaho raised his hand and asked for specific advice from the discussion leader, a black man from New York. “I would love to have more diversity on my staff,” the Idahoan said.

“Well, I’ll be honest,” said the presenter. “We ain’t going to Idaho.”

I shared that story once with the late Tony Hill, a community leader and probably the wisest observers of race relations that I ever knew. It was he who once challenged an audience of 300 or so Santa Cruz business leaders: “Next time you’re at an event and you don’t see anyone of a different race, I want you to ask yourself ‘Why?’”

Tony died a year before Obama’s improbable run for president, and I’ve often wondered how he would have reacted. Like most perceptive people, he responded to events in unexpected ways, but I’ve guessed that his reaction would have been a kind of muted celebration. “This was great, but there’s still work to do” might be close.

Polling about racism remains sharply divided between white and black. There are some similarities: about three in 10 of all races acknowledge their own racial prejudice. But from there, the differences are stark. According to a recent Washington Post poll, slightly more than half of white Americans see race relations as basically good—and improving. Six in 10 African Americans say race relations are either “not so good” or “poor.” That same poll, however, said that nine out of 10 whites would be comfortable with a black president.

But I’m not sure that poll numbers tell a true story. What I notice, here in Santa Cruz and elsewhere, is that no one wants to talk about race. There’s no percentage in it for whites, blacks, Latinos or multiracial folks. I know that whites fear being labeled as racist. I can only guess about non-whites, but that guess is that most people don’t want to be labeled as whiners so they just keep quiet about most of their grievances.

So the only time that race really comes up in our public discussion is when a trial like the Meserle case happens, or when there’s some sort of riotous reaction. Unfortunately, those discussions are rarely illuminating. It is possible, after all, that an involuntary manslaughter charge was appropriate, even if there is such a thing as institutional racism in our criminal justice system.

One might wish that electing a black president was all America needed to do to address the complexities of race. Obviously, that’s not the case.

Contact Tom Honig at gmail.com. Send comments on this article to [email protected]

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