We need to talk about race because we are often thinking about race in ways that profoundly impact our decisions and understandings. Race has also been an important factor in the way that institutions are designed and the work that they do. It has been a principal force in building, sustaining, and shifting the social and political structures and organizational arrangements that control the distribution of opportunity and resources across all populations. Race also plays a significant role—either explicitly or implicitly—in many of the most important decisions that we make in our personal, professional, and social lives: where we live, who our children’s friends are, who our friends are, which political candidates we vote for, what social programs we support, etc. For most Americans, all of these issues include some consideration of race and while these considerations are often very subtle, they have the power to shape and control individual attitudes, values, and behaviors.
It is not possible to talk coherently or truthfully about the history of our democracy or the future well-being of the American people without talking about race. The process of racialization continues to depress our aspirations as a nation as well as our economic and civic well-being, and while this process impacts racially marginalized and non-marginalized groups differently, it impacts us all.
Traditionally, our understanding of race has been incomplete and distorted. This distorted view supports an isolated mass society and makes progressive collective action very difficult. The fear that is closely associated with race causes us to look for public solutions in isolated private individuals. For example, many Americans believe that all U.S. citizens, regardless of race, have equal opportunity to achieve the “American dream.” Research suggests that this incomplete view is based, in part, on a lack of information about the causes and consequences of race-based inequality. Much of the opposition to affirmative action in the U.S. is motivated by this incomplete view.
A transformative dialogue on race can be beneficial on many levels: it can explicate the structural dynamics of social, economic, and political disparities, and it can assist us in dismantling racial hierarchy and deconstructing racialized “symbolic attitudes” that energize and perpetuate this hierarchy. It can help us to invigorate a strong inclusive democracy that invests both in its infrastructure and its people.