(Unspoken) racial subtexts to social issues in the U.S.

I recently read a book from 1995 called Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites, by Harlon L. Dalton. He is a professor of law at Yale and a good writer with an accessible voice. It was helpful to remember the context during which the book was written, in the midst of "welfare reform" and not long after then-President Clinton caved to pressure not to nominate Lani Guinier as assistant attorney general.

As an affordable housing advocate, I was struck by Dalton’s simple analysis of the usually unspoken, at times almost subconscious subtext to so much political debate on social issues in the United States:
As a nation we lack a consensus concerning how to deal with the problems that bedevil us most. We seem unable to take sustained action in any direction for very long. And we don’t trust anyone enoughto let them lead. We are, in short, politically paralyzed.

The reasons for this paralysis are several, but chief among them is our failure to engage eaach other openly and honestly around race. Think about the issues which sit atop the American agenda: crime; welfare reform; taxes; government spending; the plight of the middle class; family values; immigration; drug abuse; AIDS. Together they carry enough racial freight to sink a nation.

In the popular imagination, criminals are Black or Brown; crime victims White. Welfare cheats are dark of hue; the “forgotten middle class” is light. Governmental “taxing and spending” favors racial minorities and comes out of the hides of the White majority. Problem immigrants have yellow or brown skin; the citizens who foot the bill do not. Needless to say, I do not endorse these beliefs, or the skewed view of reality they project. My point is simply that our thinking about the nation’s most pressing social problems has become deeply “racialized”—saturated with attitudes, beliefs, and fears about race.

We tend to dance around this fact whenever we publicly debate social policy.
It’s helpful to be reminded of some of the fears underlying these issues. One of Dalton’s main points is that until we address these fears out in the open, they will continue to remain their poisonous, hidden or sometimes only half-hidden power.


parise said...

howard zinn, in a young people's history of the united states, talks about how fear of one another, especially fear of peoples of other colors and races, was used and propagated by the capitalist system to promote low wages among the work force.

i believe the main reason we don't address the race issue is because it is only part of a bigger issue that nobody really even wants to see much less talk about and that is, what we as a society have done, and are continuing to do, to other beings, human, plant, animal etc.. in order to make money. it's a crime really and no one wants to acknowledge their culpability.

"live simply so that others may simply live."

Chris M. said...

Thanks for your comment, parise.

Yes, I agree it's part of a bigger issue. At the same time, I don't want to rush to the bigger issue without spending sufficient time addressing lingering racism in and of itself, either.