Conversation on race in America is stuck on repeat

More than 100 protesters gather outside the Galleria Mall on Friday in St. Louis. The national conversation has turned to issues of racial justice, but many of us don’t examine underlying causes of inequality and injustice.
More than 100 protesters gather outside the Galleria Mall on Friday in St. Louis. The national conversation has turned to issues of racial justice, but many of us don’t examine underlying causes of inequality and injustice. Los Angeles Times

We keep having the same conversation about race in America because a lot of us aren’t listening to the other side.

White America needs to get that until an economic and criminal justice system doesn’t look like it’s deliberately and willfully tilted, black America is still going to be angry about it. Black America needs to get that when a decision doesn’t go the way it wants, it doesn’t move the dialogue forward when hometown businesses are torched. The sight of black community and religious leaders tamping down the impulse to destroy was one of the few inspiring moments of the Ferguson, Mo., debacle last week.

To stop the cycle, we have to address the core issues rather than drone on with fruitless hand-wringing. At the top of that list is structural disenfranchisement of poor and minority communities.

Calculated partisan efforts on behalf of the Republican Party to suppress voter turnout may be the most dismaying aspect of 21st-century political discourse. Because black voters typically lean Democratic – Latino and Asian American voters, too – many GOP secretaries of state actively participate in legal maneuvers to shorten voting hours and throw minority voters off the rolls.

One insidious effort called the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), run by the Republican State Leadership Committee, is devoted to redrawing congressional district lines in a way that ensures GOP victories.

From a purely political perspective, the GOP is being strategic. But by creating more so-called majority-minority districts, the strategy discourages political and racial integration and, more importantly, creates a needlessly divisive atmosphere in Congress where neither GOP nor Democratic lawmakers have any incentive to compromise.

Who’s underwriting REDMAP? You can find a list at OpenSecrets.org, which includes major corporations such as Comcast, AT&T, Wal-Mart and others that, incredibly, also tout their commitment to diversity on their websites. This isn’t some penny-ante operation, either; more than $22 million was raised for REDMAP in 2014. Someone’s profiting on the deal, and it’s not the average voter.

Of course, there’s more to the story than the partisan playbook. Some of the political problems of the black community are self-inflicted. Low minority voter turnout in off-year elections and even lower rates of participation in local elections routinely undermine change.

When the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced, did young people at the protests turn to voter registration? No, and some turned to burning what few viable small businesses were left in the city center, many of them minority-owned and -operated.

But imagine what the mostly white Ferguson’s City Council and Police Department might have looked like if more than 12 percent of the mostly black residents had routinely voted in city elections. Voting still matters, most acutely on the local level, where city councils and county commissions set rules and hiring targets for their police and sheriff’s departments.

Economic conditions also hobble the black community, in Ferguson and across the country. When wages are suppressed, hours curtailed and benefits cut, people who can’t make ends meet become hopeless. Desperation yields, too often, to crime.

The divide between family wealth is cavernous as well, and it grew during the Great Recession. White families averaged a net worth of $632,000, compared to black families at $98,000, according to a 2013 Urban Institute study. The national unemployment rate is 5.8 percent, but only 4.8 percent for whites. In contrast, the unemployment rate for black Americans is 10.9 percent.

President Barack Obama has sent strong, positive signals to Ferguson and beyond by keeping his rhetoric real but also low-key. His actions have been sound. Attorney General Eric Holder went to Ferguson in August to assure residents of his commitment to the integrity of the law. Many local black leaders in Ferguson and in cities all across the nation have called for nonviolent protests, even standing in front of businesses to protect them.

Some Republicans recognize the zero-sum game of race baiting as well. To his credit, Sen. Rand Paul, a likely GOP presidential candidate, has made forays into black enclaves, including a well-publicized visit with the Rev. Al Sharpton in the Senate dining room.

These are heartening developments as the national race conversation continues. But we’ll be just talking past each other unless we expand the discussion this time around to examine the underlying causes of our continued racial woes.