August 26, 2013

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington this week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took the opportunity to make a plea for ignoring racial differences in a much-discussed Politico op-ed titled “The end of race“:

There is no more shallow, hollow, or soulless way to think about human beings than in terms of their skin color. It is completely inane. Under what logic would any intelligent, logical, or decent person give any thought to the pigmentation of a person’s epidermis? It’s nothing short of immoral, not to mention stupid.

He goes on to blame minorities and immigrants for sowing the seeds of division by being too proud of their heritage or too conscious of their skin color. That’s not what King would have wanted, Jindal writes, explaining that the civil rights icon would have embraced the American “melting pot” — “a concept that was completely compatible with Dr. King’s dream of every American being judged on the content of his character and not the color of his skin.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) (Danny Johnston/Associated Press)
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) (Danny Johnston/Associated Press)

The idea is hardly unique to Jindal. Rather, it has become the de facto mainstream conservative position on race in America from people such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who essentially say, “We ignore race and look at individuals while the race-baiting left is obsessed with separateness.” There’s even a movement to “Unhyphenate America” by dropping descriptors like “African-American” and “Asian-American.”

It’s a nice idea, in theory, but “colorblindness,” as some have called it, misunderstands King’s legacy and obscures the problems that minorities still face to this day while protecting the status quo.

King wanted people to be judged as individuals, yes, but he also realized that we were a long way off from his dream, and we still are. Instead of ignoring race, King said it was important to look at “groups” and wrote that his movement “seeks to create…a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” That’s not an argument for the end of talking about race.

The legalized institutional racism that King faced may be long gone, but if you went down to the Mall on Saturday, as tens of thousands gathered to commemorate his famed 1963 march, you would have seen signs and heard chants for demands to deal with latent problems that can only be addressed by acknowledging racial differences. Peter Dreier has a good rundown in The Post of issues King might care about today, and they reflected what I saw on the Mall this weekend: voting rights, gun violence, mass incarceration and income inequality, among others.

On voting rights, if you ignore race you won’t see that bills purportedly aimed at securing elections disproportionately disenfranchise minorities. On gun violence, if you remove race from the equation, you’d miss that blacks are vastly more likely to be killed than whites. If you ignore race, you’d miss that the national black unemployment rate has consistently remained double the white unemployment rate for the past 60 years. And you wouldn’t see that banks pushed shoddy home loans on poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

On mass incarceration, if you refuse to see race you’d miss that while blacks make up just 12 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 44 percent of the prison population. Or that there are now more African Americans on probation, parole or in prison than there were slaves in 1850. This is particularly a problem when it comes to drug crimes, where five times as many whites report using drugs, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced an important, but modest reform on drug-sentencing guidelines this month to help fix that imbalance, and he’s taking important steps on voting rights, but he could do more. The Obama administration still hasn’t outlined its position on marijuana, even after voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized the drug and after CNN medical corespondent Sanjay Gupta, who Obama once considered naming surgeon general, publicly reversed himself on pot.

Rates of use among blacks and white are similar, but blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for pot possession, and that rate has been increasing. Holder had spoken good words here — “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safe nation,” he said recently — but as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, he could do more.

And all of this would be ignored in Jindal and other conservatives’ post-racial dream world. You can’t fix a problem if you can’t even talk about it.