Way back in 1996, President Bill Clinton launched a “national conversation on race.”
Back then, Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver followed Clinton’s lead, getting several groups in his community to also talk openly about that often taboo subject. Those conversations unfortunately didn’t have the staying power that racism, discrimination and prejudice have enjoyed throughout this country’s history.
But the United States desperately needs a public, open and honest dialogue on race relations now more than ever. It would help people better understand the Black Lives Matter movement emerging from the Aug. 9, 2014, fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. No one should try to minimize it. That’s part of the problem.
A national conversation could result in solutions to the recurring deaths of black males by police, calm tension over the slayings by a white supremacist of nine African-Americans on June 17 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and perhaps have prevented Vester Lee Flanagan II from killing Roanoke, Va., TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward. Flanagan, who had been fired from the station, committed suicide. He said his action was over racial grievances from the Charleston church shooting. It makes no sense, but neither does racism.
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Starbucks’ “Race Together” initiative should have been the national forum this country now needs on race. Howard Schultz, chairman and chief executive of the company, began Race Together in March to get people to talk about the racial distress that showed up in protests and violence after Brown’s killing.
But national ridicule shut down the effort. Ongoing discussions, however, are needed to keep America’s ubiquitous bigotry in check. The police killings of other unarmed African-American males haven’t ended, and neither have the protests and violence. Last month unrest flared again in Ferguson on the anniversary of Brown’s death.
People need to talk about the many homicides and cases of mistreatment that people of color suffer. That conversation is long overdue. A company like Starbucks with thousands of coffee shops should reinvigorate its Race Together program, creating a safe place for such discussions.
Other companies, nonprofit agencies, governments, schools, colleges, universities and places where people worship need to open their doors to similar conversations on race. They shouldn’t devolve into gripe sessions or blame but be like the “Truth and Reconciliation” assemblies in South Africa after the end of apartheid, enabling the victims of violence to come forward and be heard.
Many of the hearings were broadcast on television and became a crucial part of South Africa’s transition to a democracy. The openness gave people an outlet for their pain, a way to be heard and for substantive change to occur.
Conversations on race in the U.S. could have a similar effect. They have just never received the time, attention or continued interest to make a difference.
As the diversity of the United States continues to increase, no one should want the disparities to continue in economics, education, social justice, health and civic engagement for people of color. But that’s what the National Urban League reported earlier this year in its 2015 State of Black America.
The Urban League’s 2015 Equality Index puts African-Americans at 72.2 percent, which means that black people enjoy only three-quarters of the quality of life in this country that white people do. That’s up from 71.5 percent in 2014. The Latino equality index was somewhat better at 75.8 percent for 2014 compared with 77.7 percent in 2015, the Urban League reports.
Having ongoing conversations about the problems of disparity and senseless race-related violence — and brainstorming about meaningful solutions — could help at long last to bring equity to America, where little has existed in this country’s long, difficult history.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board. Readers may write to him at Ldiuguid@kcstar.com
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