In separate speeches over the weekend, first lady Michelle Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. talked about race and the need for all Americans to not shy away from this messy conversation. And a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) on racial attitudes shows why such a conversation is imperative.

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks in Topeka. (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters)
First Lady Michelle Obama speaks in Topeka. (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters)

Obama traveled to Topeka, Kan., to mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared segregation in the nation’s public schools unconstitutional.

You all can make a difference every day in your own lives simply by teaching others the lessons you’ve learned here in Topeka. Maybe that starts simply in your own family, when grandpa tells that off-colored joke at Thanksgiving, or you’ve got an aunt talks about “those people.”  Well, you can politely inform them that they’re talking about your friends. . . .

But no matter what you do, the point is to never be afraid to talk about these issues, particularly the issue of race. Because even today, we still struggle to do that. Because this issue is so sensitive, is so complicated, so bound up with a painful history. And we need your generation to help us break through. We need all of you to ask the hard questions and have the honest conversations, because that is the only way we will heal the wounds of the past and move forward to a better future.

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at Morgan State University. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. speaks at Morgan State University. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

Holder urged the graduates of Morgan State University, the historically black institution in Baltimore, to “continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it.” He worried that all the focus on the highly publicized pronouncements of and outrage against Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling might obscure problems just below the surface.

“These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged, or the work that still needs to be done – because the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized. . . .

Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether. This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn’t need to be actively confronted. In its most obvious forms, it might be. But discrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet or a Jim Crow-like statute. And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote recently in an insightful dissent in the Michigan college admissions case – we must not “wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. . . . The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.”

The imperative behind Holder’s admonition was made stark in that PRRI survey I mentioned earlier. The organization designed the experiment last year to “assess anxieties” among whites over the changing demographics of the country. Respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “The idea of an America where most people are not white bothers me.” Thirteen percent said they agreed.

Because of “social desirability bias,” or the tendency of respondents to give answers that put them in a more positive light, PRRI conducted an experiment where two groups were asked to say how many in a list of three statements bothered them. Only one of the groups was given a fourth statement that read “An America that is not mostly white.” As you can see in the chart below, the responses are astounding.

(Public Religion Research Institute)
(Public Religion Research Institute)

That 13 percent of whites who said they were bothered by the statement when asked directly shoots up to 31 percent when asked indirectly in the list experiment. This happens in every subcategory, with the spread in the responses among Democrats and Republicans being the most revealing. For those identifying as Republican, an initial 18 percent being “bothered” jumps to 30 percent; a 12-point spread. Among Democrats, an initial 11 percent rose to 33 percent. A 22-point increase that is four points wider than the overall tally.

This should disabuse anyone of the notion that only Republicans have to come to terms with race issues or that it’s all peace, love and understanding under the big tent of the Democratic Party. This should also buttress the messages from Obama and Holder. The PRRI results reinforce their calls to ask the tough questions and have the honest conversations necessary to foster greater understanding on all sides and to calm the concern among whites about a majority-minority America.

Holder put it best when he told the Morgan State graduates, “[W]e do ourselves and our great nation a grave disservice whenever we reach for easy answers or revert to stale talking points . . . whenever we trade the noisy discord of honest, tough and vigorous debate for the quiet prejudice of inaction – and the cold silence of consent.” We can’t continue to let this happen.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.