1. Opinion

Column: Talk alone will not mend racial divide

Published Jul. 23, 2013

Once again the United States is wrestling with the agony of racism. The verdict in the Trayvon Martin case stands as a dividing line between people of color and white residents.

And once again, we are told that in order to resolve our differences we must have a serious conversation about racism. Presumably, such a discussion would afford blacks the opportunity to tell whites about the indignities they endure in an effort to change white attitudes and behavior. I've spent the last 25 years organizing such conversations in our region, but I'm skeptical about their ability to fundamentally change people's attitudes.

Here's why:

Black people have been telling their stories to white people for decades. There is voluminous evidence substantiating racial discrimination in our society. Local, state and federal courts and agencies have issued decisions aimed at redressing inequities.

Corporations, organizations and individuals have paid tens of millions of dollars in penalties for their illegal behavior, yet discrimination continues. Adding insult to injury, last month the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a critical section of the Voting Rights Act, rejecting thousands of pages of testimony on abuses and the will of four Congresses that reauthorized the act.

We don't need more statistics confirming racial inequality in our society. What we need is more compassion and, most of all, believability among whites that people of color are regularly subjected to discriminatory behavior.

Many whites lack empathy and understanding about people of color. They don't live in dilapidated inner cities like Detroit, where it takes an hour for the police to respond to a 911 call. Nor do they send their children to struggling inner city schools — schools that are more segregated today than before the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Many don't have to work in low-paying dead-end service jobs without pensions, sick days and paid vacations. And they don't have to endure longer prison terms for the same offenses.

I used to buy into the white shibboleth that low black and Latino voter turnout was because they didn't care enough to vote. Then came the election of 2000 and the Supreme Court decision that deprived Floridians of their right to decide the election for themselves. I believed the popular mythology about America being "the land of the free and the home of the brave," a place where anyone can excel if he is industrious and law-abiding.

Now I know that voter suppression is not just a term used by disgruntled people of color. The courts have found numerous instances of fraud and devious attempts to abridge their voting rights. Why are voting records being purged in Florida when only a handful of fraudulent ballots have been found? Why did the governor shorten the number of early election days last year? Why are the governor and attorney general obstructing the restoration of voting rights to felons who have served their time? If we truly believe in the right to vote, why don't we hold polls open seven days a week for a month to accommodate everyone?

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Enormous changes have taken place in our society since the civil rights era, but ask our first president of color how many threats and insults he has endured, and how difficult it has been to reach consensus with a white-dominated party that may be headed for oblivion. Check the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center and see the increase in the number of hate groups since he was elected: more than 1,000 nationwide, with 59 in Florida. There are more than 60,000 hate websites on the Internet, and the level of racial discourse on some blogs is beneath contempt.

What scares some white people is the writing on the wall: In 30 years they will be the minority in this country, and 10 years after that one of every three people will be Latino. Are they afraid of retribution and retaliation for their behavior and indifference?

I still believe it is important to share our stories with one another, but talk alone will not solve the racial divide. It is a first step, but political action involving coalitions from diverse ethnic groups demanding an end to discrimination in every sector of our society is a necessary second step. The peaceful demonstrations protesting the Zimmerman verdict and use of social media may be the beginning of an American Spring. Together, we must pursue social justice in our courts and the Legislature until we fulfill the promise of a nation "with liberty and justice for all."

H. Roy Kaplan was an adviser to President Bill Clinton's Task Force on Racism, "One America." He was the executive director of the Tampa Bay chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He teaches courses on racism at the University of South Florida. His latest book is "The Myth of Post-Racial America," and he wrote this column exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.


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