This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Hurricane Katrina reinforced that race colors how we perceive the world and events around us. Our fear of talking about race paired with our flawed goal to be "colorblind" has left us having parallel conversations rather than a collaborative dialogue. Some say racism is anachronistic while others experience its relevance daily.
As a country, we have to be willing to delay our defensive reactions when the topic of race comes up and ask ourselves the hard questions of how those left behind, who are predominantly poor and of color, got to be in their present circumstances. It doesn't just happen by accident. As sociologist Allan Johnson asserts, “A trouble we can’t talk about is a trouble we can’t do anything about.”
We have made racial strides on interpersonal and institutional levels. However, we cannot act as if the system of racism that fueled the history of injustice in our country has simply disappeared.
Has it been altered? Yes. But it has not been fully dismantled despite some assertions that that we are "colorblind" or that we “don’t see color.” Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum likens the system of racism to a moving walkway. If we can accept the fact that there are policies and people in our American history that upheld the pattern of racism, then we can consider this analogy. On this moving walkway, we continue in one direction — consciously or unconsciously — unless we move purposefully in the opposite direction. We cannot claim to be going in a given direction when momentum is propelling us the opposite way.
Put another way, we cannot simply claim that we do not take race into account when we have been propelled by a history of doing just that. The attitudes, values and beliefs that keep our country moving in such a direction are not unlearned without conscious effort. Therefore, the way out is to turn around, collectively and individually, to move toward developing tools to dismantle the walkway so that it no longer drives us toward racism.
Discussions of race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina lack depth. A variety of “spokespeople” respond to yes/no questions about the role of race. This tragic event has given us an opportunity to have a more complex discussion: one that points out the intersection of race and class in our society, one that looks at the complexity of circumstances rather than aiming to simplify matters, or one that validates multiple perspectives rather than forcing people to take sides.
In conversations about race, it is easy to get defensive; it is easy to stay at the surface, and it is easy to remain wedded to only our own point of view. Talking about race is hard, uncomfortable work. However, our only way out of the mess of racism is by working through it, not by circumventing it.
When evidence of racism appears, we need to own up to it. Such instances do not mean we are bad people. They simply mean that we have some more work to do to dismantle the system. Until we are willing to name the realities of race, we will remain stuck in the limbo of wanting to move beyond something that looms over us and continues with us partly because we deny its existence. The legacy of racism continues (unfortunately) to influence us all. Its effects are seen on individual, cultural and institutional levels in ways that are inextricably linked.
No one person created racism, but it is the responsibility of each of us to dismantle it. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that she knows the “soft bigotry of low expectations” (i.e. racism) yet lets President Bush off the hook by saying that he would never exhibit such bigotry, it is a contradiction. We are all on the hook.
We need to be willing to move beyond feelings of shame and defensiveness when the conversation shifts to racism as it has in the post-Katrina analyses. If we can recognize that race still plays a role in our society, we can move beyond pointing the finger at one person or one group of people and can begin to work together to continue dismantling the systems of oppression that influence each and every one of our lives.
Dr. Kira Hudson Banks is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill.