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Obama’s new Attorney General, Eric Holder, gave a speech this past week about Black History Month. Here are the most important bits:

One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul.

Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards…. we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.

… this nation has still not come to grips with its racial past nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is fated to have. … And so I would suggest that we use February of every year to not only commemorate black history but also to foster a period of dialogue among the races.

… While the problems that continue to afflict the black community may be more severe, they are an indication of where the rest of the nation may be if corrective measures are not taken.

You can read the whole thing at the Department of Justice website.

I pretty much agree with Holder except that maybe “cowards” was not the right word: blacks know race is an important issue, but I think most whites do not understand just how important it is – many of them seem to think racism is over: “We elected a black president, so let’s move on”.

Half of what the civil rights movement in America did in the 1950s and 1960s was to bring racism into the light of day. The protests that Martin Luther King and others led showed the country just how racist it still was. It made racism something you could show on television from coast to coast. White people could no longer fool themselves or talk it away.

But the racism that remains is much more subtle, harder to show up and therefore much easier for whites to deny.

But Holder is right that race is hard to talk about once it is brought up. There are three reasons for that:

  1. It is hard for whites to understand racism - most have never experienced it.
  2. Many whites have had the experience of “saying something wrong”, of saying something racist that they did not know was racist. And so the whole race thing becomes something they avoid.
  3. The r-word: Calling a white person “racist” gets them upset and makes them incapable of talking calmly and reasonably.

Most whites have this self-image of not being racist and yet most of them are racist, but mostly in ways they do not see. Yet it is because of that self-image that it becomes hard to point that out to them. And so white feelings and ideas about race remain stuck in the 1970s.

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