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Talking About Race

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By Governor Howard Dean

Race is a difficult subject in America. Politicians often tell Black audiences that they believe in civil rights and affirmative action. Some talk about their own experiences in the Civil Rights movement.

Some are now attacking the use of the word quotas in front of White audiences. Doing all of this is important.

But it is not enough.

No White American can understand what it means to be Black in America. Things have improved significantly for African Americans in this country since 1964. However, it is important to recognize that the Civil Rights Movement was largely a victory over legal segregation. Discrimination still exists, and we must continue efforts to eliminate it.

Polls show that the majority of White Americans believe that race is no longer a big factor in American life, and that equality of opportunity has mostly been successfully incorporated into American political and social culture. Many White Americans assume that whatever segregation remains in the public school systems and universities around the country is either self-imposed or the product of neighborhood schools.

Bill Clinton is the only President or White Presidential candidate I have ever heard talk candidly about issues of race in America. Black Americans still believe, with some justification, that White America does not understand the historical scars left by slavery and Jim Crow, scars which cannot be erased in a generation or two. Black Americans often mistake White indifference or lack of understanding for racism, which is the case in only a small number of instances.

But many White Americans don't understand that indifference and lack of understanding does lead to institutional racism, where, despite the best intentions of the individuals who run the institution, day-to-day hiring practices only reinforce African American fears and suspicions of bias. Just last week, a Wall Street Journal article reported that White job applicants with criminal records were more likely to be called back for job interviews than African American applicants with clean records.

Affirmative action is still needed in order to overcome the unconscious biases that all Americans of every ethnic group have toward hiring people like themselves. And the discussion of that unconscious bias is essential if we are ever going to bridge the gaps between White America and not only African Americans, but the Latino community, Native-Americans, Asian Americans, and women of all ethnic backgrounds.

Talking about race means more than merely mentioning civil rights or condemning the President's use of the word quota. Talking about race means confronting ourselves with the vastly different perceptions that we have about each other, and trying to walk a mile in one another’s shoes.

Race is not simply a matter of civil rights; it can influence the right to thrive and prosper in American society. A discussion of race is incomplete without addressing the impact of race or ethnicity on the ability to access affordable health care, quality education and the capital to build businesses and create wealth.

It is particularly important for White candidates to raise these issues in front of White audiences. This kind of message can be too easily dismissed or pigeonholed coming from a member of a minority community. If America is going to prosper as the most diverse nation on the face of the earth, we are all going to have to take responsibility for the stereotypes we have of each other, and debunk them.

Let us each commit to do our part.

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