All I want for the new year is the banishment of “post-racial” anything from all social and political discourse. From its first utterance in 2008 to herald the rise of Barack Obama, the concept was misguided and delusional. That giddy moment when Obama won the bitterly fought South Carolina primary and the audience chanted “Race doesn’t matter” is but a distant memory. News, polls and studies that emerged in the last half of 2014 made it painfully plain that race still matters.
The fatal police interactions with unarmed African-American men, particularly with Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, sparked a national debate about law enforcement and race. The failure to indict the officers in those two cases spurred a national conversation on race and the equal application of justice. But let’s move past these two flashpoints, which play into what my Washington Post colleague Eugene Robinson correctly calls our “spasmodic pattern” of dealing with race.
Evidence that race matters is all around us, quite literally. The folks at Vox earlier this month reminded us of a Southern Poverty Law Center list of the number of active Ku Klux Klan chapters in the United States. NewsOne turned that information into an interactive map. The racist and anti-Semitic hate group that fancies white sheets, cross burnings and has a history of other assorted acts of violence is active in 41 out of 50 states.
No pun intended, but race colors how we view some issues. A new Post-ABC News poll shows how stark the divide is when it comes to law enforcement.
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Only one in 10 African Americans says blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment with whites in the criminal justice system. Only about two in 10 say they are confident that the police treat whites and blacks equally, whether or not they have committed a crime. In contrast, roughly half of all white Americans say the races are treated equally in the justice system, and six in 10 have confidence that police treat both equally.
The division is not just along racial lines. The survey also highlights the partisan nature of it. If you are a white Republican you are more likely to say the races are treated equally by police. If you are a white Democrat you are more likely to believe there is a difference in treatment.
And a recent column by Esther Cepeda on a study on the impact of language on how African Americans are perceived was as eye-opening as it was stunning. The name of the report says it all: “A rose by any other name?: The consequences of subtyping ‘African Americans’ from ‘Blacks.’” Researchers Erika Hall, Katherine Phillips and Sarah Townsend conducted four experiments to see if whites made a distinction between “blacks” and “African Americans.” Please take the time to read their study. It’s fascinating. But everything you need to know is in their abstract.
We argue that the racial label Black evokes a mental representation of a person with lower socioeconomic status than the racial label African American, and that Whites will react more negatively toward Blacks (vs. African Americans). In Study 1, we show that the stereotype content for Blacks (vs. African Americans) is lower in status, positivity, competence and warmth. In Study 2, Whites view a target as lower status when he is identified as Black vs. African-American. In Study 3, we demonstrate that the use of the label Black vs. African-American in a U.S. Newspaper crime report article is associated with a negative emotional tone in that respective article. Finally, in Study 4, we show that Whites view a criminal suspect more negatively when he is identified as Black vs. African American. The results establish how racial labels can have material consequences for a group.
This study alone should dispel any notion that ours will ever be a “post-racial” society. Before that could happen, we Americans first would have to deal with our “current-racial” society. But as I’ve written many times, we would have to talk to each other one on one, face to face, in an intensely personal and uncomfortable exercise.
The multiracial hue to the demonstrations has given me hope that those conversations are happening a little bit more now. Small steps on the road to racial healing. Still, those talks have yet to become national in scope because they require a key element that is missing: trust. Until we can have a conversation grounded in trust we will never take that giant leap as a nation to that “post-racial” ideal where race doesn’t matter.
Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.
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