Politics & Policy

Want to Hear a REALLY Honest Speech about Race in America?

Enough with the conversations.

My fellow Americans, let me begin with an apology. I have been promising a speech on the topic of race relations, because I kept reading newspaper columns about how we never hear any discussion of racial issues, and my advisers told me that it would be very brave for me to give such a speech. I recognize now that this is a lot of nonsense, and I have changed my reading habits and fired those advisers.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan urged years ago that race relations in this country could benefit most from a period of “benign neglect.” He was criticized for saying so, but he was right. When it comes to quantity, we have plenty of discussion of racial issues. Rather, it’s quality that the discussion lacks.

So let me make just three brief points today, and then let’s all just shut up.

First, race relations in this country are good, have never been better, and are improving. We should all be happy and proud of that. America has made enormous progress in a very short period of time. Not so very long ago we had government-enforced, official, institutionalized racism in large parts of this country. But such systematic discrimination no longer exists. Not only are our public schools not segregated, but they teach that it is wrong to discriminate on account of race. That’s true of our popular culture as well. If you’re a screenwriter and you want the audience to know it is supposed to dislike a character, you have him say something bigoted.

We have passed laws, and we enforce those laws, making it illegal for governments to discriminate, and for private parties to do so as well, in virtually every public transaction: voting, employment, public accommodations, contracting, housing, credit, you name it. It is no longer socially acceptable to be a racist. There has never been less discrimination in more areas than there is now.

There are those who will say that I am “in denial.” No. It is those who refuse to recognize the progress that has been made who are in denial. Does this mean that there is no longer any racism or discrimination? Of course not. And this is my second point.

There is still racism in America, and there is still discrimination. The fact is, there will always be some discrimination. But there is less and less of it, especially among younger people. And the old racists, of all colors, will eventually die off.

It is also the case that the government cannot do much more about racial discrimination than it is already doing. We can and should continue to enforce our antidiscrimination laws, but any underlying racism that remains must be addressed by all of us — black and white, Asian and Hispanic, American Indian and immigrant — in our hearts. While sometimes it can be tempting to generalize about people based on the color of their skin, it is wrong to do so. All good Americans must resist that temptation.

But how will we end this temptation? This brings me to my third point, which is a hard one to make without being accused of “blaming the victim,” at best, or even being labeled a flat-out racist, if you happen to be white. But, to the extent that there is anything brave that needs to be said in this area, it is this point: Racism today is less a cause of our problems than it is a symptom of them.

Illegitimacy, drug addiction, and crime are not just problems for minorities, but we know that these problems are worse for our urban black poor than for other groups. We must admit that it is this disproportion that accounts for most of the remaining racism that exists in our country.

The best way to get rid of the remaining racism is to get rid of the pathologies afflicting so many low-income, urban communities. To the extent there is a problem in race relations in this country, it is a problem about the assimilation of these African Americans — more so, really, than Latinos, and certainly more so than Asians — into the larger American culture.

Let me be even more blunt and specific: The biggest domestic problem America faces today, and certainly the biggest problem that the African-American community faces today, is that seven out of ten African Americans are born out of wedlock. The racial disparities — and any resulting racism — we see all stem principally from this sad fact. When you grow up in a home without a father, you are much more likely to grow up poor and remain poor, and to get into trouble with the law, and to do poorly in school.

Yet we African Americans could go from seven-out-of-ten to zero-out-of-ten in nine months without spending a dime, if we made up our minds to. Why don’t we?

I don’t want to end on a down note. The glass is at least seven-eighths full. As I said, the real problems we face are not racial, and are not limited to one racial group. We should work together to address these problems. And we should be proud of the way America now treats all its racial groups; do our part to judge our fellow citizens by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; and do what we can to help local communities as they fight the problems that are our real enemies.

Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

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