Like it or not, race isn't going away

Published Aug. 4, 2012

Each week, I receive emails admonishing me that the nation's race problems would magically disappear if the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and Bill Maxwell would shut our loud mouths and stop talking about race.

Of course, Sharpton and Jackson and Maxwell know this is nonsense. The utterance itself manifests racism. Sometimes, even as I am receiving these missives, a racial issue is producing headlines.

Try as we may as a nation, we cannot pretend or obfuscate our way out of the quagmire of race. Our instincts and actions keep getting in the way. Too many of us, however, have learned cynical and clever ways to ignore or circumvent the reality and truth of race.

One reader insisted that "race is a sinking ship." It is an impressive-sounding analogy, but it does not describe race in the United States — the "land of the free," where people of African origin were held as slaves for more than two centuries and then cast off to grub in a society of white hostility.

While incidents involving individuals, such as the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, grab the headlines, trends involving trusted institutions that use race-specific, predatory practices engender less public attention and outrage. That is unfortunate, because these institutions annually ruin many lives.

For example, in a consent order recently made public, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that bank regulators had evidence that Wells Fargo steered African-American applicants into the subprime mortgage lending channel more often than white applicants with similar credit ratings during the period from 2004 to 2008.

Claiming it did nothing wrong, of course, Wells Fargo has agreed to a $175 million settlement with the Justice Department.

"The department's action makes clear that we will hold financial institutions accountable, including some of the nation's largest, for lending discrimination," Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in announcing the settlement. "An applicant's creditworthiness, and not the color of his or her skin, should determine what loans a borrower qualifies for."

In another example of race-specific, predatory practices, the Mississippi Center for Justice in Jackson, a nonprofit public interest law firm, filed a lawsuit against Virginia College, a for-profit institution with most of its campuses in 11 Southern states.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Jackson, alleges that the college promised blacks a better life, misled them about the value of its degrees and enticed them to work as admissions staff and representatives. The suit also alleges that the college bought misleading ads in Jackson's black newspapers and on buses that primarily serve black communities, a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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"The targeting of a predatory product to a racial minority is a form of intentional discrimination," said Courtney Choi, a legal fellow at the center. "These students can't pay back their student loans because they weren't adequately trained to get the jobs in their field."

Naturally, college officials, while awaiting a trial date, said the lawsuit is without merit. And I am braced for angry and profane emails from conservative whites who, through recrimination and plain meanness, justify these practices.

Liberal whites ask me what they can do to help "fix" the race problem in the United States. I always disappoint. Racism is hardwired into America's culture and psyche, I tell them. The most they can do is work on themselves as individuals. Religion is no help. Sunday morning at 11, as the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, remains the most segregated hour of the week. Our public schools began retreating on race years ago after courts lifted desegregation orders. Today, many of our schools are as segregated as they were on the day King was killed.

On the other side, while many hate me for it, this is what I tell blacks about race in America: As a group, we are out of favor. Like it or not, affirmative action is a dinosaur. We are virtually on our own and must learn how to live most strategically with racial discrimination. We cannot change the hearts and minds of racists, especially those who profit by preying on us. The only viable option is to take care of self.

The practices of Wells Fargo, Virginia College and other trusted institutions are quintessential America. Yes, white conservatives are sick and tired of hearing about race. Well, blacks are sick and tired of being the victims of the heinousness of race.

William Faulkner expert John Jeremiah Sullivan, in a recent essay for the New York Times, aptly captures the essence of this enduring issue in the United States: "Racism is still our madness."