“Why are you always talking about race?” and prophetic words from over 30 years ago

Why are you always talking about race?” This question was recently posed to me and while I was able to deflect and lighten the mood, the truth is the question annoyed me. We so desperately want to be a post-racial nation when all the evidence suggests that we are nowhere near being post-racial. It will take more than a few well positioned people of color in positions of power to correct hundreds of years of oppression and its lingering effects.

As I prepare to move into my new position at Community Change Inc.; I am reading a series of essays written by CCI’s founder Horace Seldon. I came across the following essay a few days ago and in many ways it answers the question of “why I am always talking about race”. This piece was written 39 years ago and yet it is still quite relevant and shows just how far we have (not) come when it comes to race in the US.

Pluralism and Racism- November 1974

A genuine concern for a culturally pluralistic society is emerging. Numerous commentators on social trends have written asserting that white ethnic groups will increasingly claim and affirm their heritage. School systems are beginning to adopt Evaluation Guidelines for Multiracial, Multicultural Education, and teachers are developing supplementary units stressing an appreciation of diversity. The “melting pot” theory is dead. We at Community Change applaud that death and are eager to move into a multiracial, multicultural world whenever it is an alternative to racism.

The melting pot theory held that America was a place where people become alike, homogenized into one conforming mass. The standards for that homogeneity were white middle class, mostly Anglo-Saxon values. When those values were acted out, the “melting pot” eliminated differences in dress, behavior, language and traditions. The result was a homogeneity which defined societal acceptability in white terms. The melting pot became racist because people who are white just cannot “melt” into “whiteness.”

At Community Change we believe that all white ethnic groups have benefited from and contributed to the perpetuation of racism. Any failure by white ethnics to deal with their involvement in racism is an obstruction to the goal of cultural pluralism. It is not a question of whether or white ethnics as individuals or groups “like” Black people, or Chicago or Native American people…instead it is a question of the ways in which white ethnics have institutionalized racism, i.e., in trade unions, or in urban school systems such as Boston, where resistance to desegregation is embedded in a white ethnic controlled School Committee.

At Community Change we want to move into cultural pluralism as rapidly as possible. Our anxiety is that the movement into cultural pluralism might become a substitute for dealing with racism. For instance it would become possible in a school to initiate cultural exchange programs without changing tracking and testing systems that often place racist limitations upon Black students. A business might implement an equal opportunity employment policy intended to recruit a multicultural group of employees, but never change policies which deny access of non-white persons to decision-making positions of power. High school students might be encouraged to celebrate a Mexican festival, while the school continues to deny a bilingual program for its Spanish speaking students. Or it might become fashionable to study Native American customs as if they represented a “dead” culture, and bypass responsibility for a modern-day Wounded Knee.

All of these might be done in the name of cultural pluralism, but all fail to deal with racism.

At Community Change we are committed to working “through” racism towards cultural pluralism. That means working to eliminate racist policies, practices, and values as a means of preparing for cultural pluralism. Our focus is on the elimination of racism.-Horace Seldon

These words were written 39 years ago, and while a few of the references may be dated, as a whole it describes where we now stand in 2013. We celebrate diversity, we exalt a select few people of color but we never did the heavy lifting and talking and as a result, not much has really changed. That is why I always talk about race.