In 2009, newly sworn-in Attorney General Eric Holder challenged Americans to courageously engage in a conversation about race.
“If we are to make progress on these issues, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us,” he said.
Five years after Holder’s challenge, the situation only appears to have deteriorated further.
As a nation, we frequently tiptoe around the often perilous issue of race and the many public policy issues race touches. This happens because many on the left are quick to assign racial prejudice to their opponents in debates about public policy issues they feel are the province of liberals alone.
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In no place is this more blatant than in our tenuous national dialogue about poverty.
Ask Rep. Paul Ryan.
He has been the latest victim of this phenomenon after recent comments in which he referred to the “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities,” which he argues has created a culture of dependency in disadvantaged communities.
Ryan, who has been on a listening tour of inner-city neighborhoods for more than a year, was summarily lambasted by the left for his implied racial meaning (although race was never mentioned).
His experience illustrates the primary reason many avoid open and honest discussion of such sensitive subject matter.
Conservatives have learned that when discussing issues like poverty, they expose themselves to accusations of racism.
Such accusations are frequently “used as a delegitimizing tactic on issues … where good-faith disagreement should be possible,” explained New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.
As Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney wrote last year, “unfairly imagining racism where it doesn’t exist … isn’t a good way to begin a discussion.”
Similar sentiments were shared by Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, who wrote “It is so important not to trivialize racism by calling things racist that they are not. … Liberals should know better than to keep crying racism, falsely.”
In reality, the risk that one might be assigned such a loaded moniker does nothing but keep alternative, even creative, policy ideas off the table.
We are not a racist society, but we are not a “post-racial” one either.
In spite of our best intentions, colorblindness is a virtue we have yet to achieve.
But it will be impossible to achieve if we shut down debate instead of using it as a tool in tackling the manifold social and economic problems that disproportionately impact minority communities.
Such an endeavor requires empathy from the right.
And it demands tolerance from the left, made all the more imperative after such swift assertions that Ryan and like-minded conservatives are little more than racists.
Social decay and poverty demand our attention. Their persistence proves that our current approach to fighting such ills has failed.
We won’t improve the prospects for the poor by employing the same old ineffective programs or by smearing policymakers who suggest alternative causes and solutions.
Holder was right: Confronting race and poverty demands courage. It will force us to think, listen and face some realities about ourselves. Not all of those truths will be pleasant or easy to acknowledge.
But no resolution will ever be realized if we refrain from engaging, prevent others from talking, refuse to listen or retreat in the face of adversity.