After Paterson squabble, we need an adult talk about race

Aug 26, 2009

Wednesday, August 26th 2009, 4:00 AM

There exists a word in the American English language that on its own incites such a reaction that it may as well be taboo. It isn’t a curse word nor a derogatory term, but rather a simple four-letter concept that by and large encapsulates the crux of many of our problems as a nation. It oftentimes divides us and hinders us from engaging in actual dialogue to address social and cultural issues. This word is none other than “race” – and it’s about time we start having a real, honest and thorough discussion surrounding it.

In March 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama delivered an extraordinary speech on race relations in America. He stated: “We can accept politics that breeds division, and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as a spectacle – as we did in the O.J. trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina … Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.'”

Last week, Gov. Paterson addressed his dwindling poll numbers and rising disapproval by interjecting race. His critics say that instead of acknowledging some of his own shortcomings, the governor has blamed the media for wanting to get rid of a black politician.

I am the first one to recognize racism and injustice when I see it, but when it’s made to appear that we use race as a knee-jerk reaction to more complex issues, it helps neither blacks nor anyone else. We as black people should recognize the complexities of governing. And at the same time, no one should be naive enough to deny that some in the media do in fact foster certain biases and view things through their own prism rather than from a place of objectivity.

Paterson may have disappointed some, but remember that others judged him from a different standard from day one, and that in and of itself suggests feelings of unfairness.

When it comes to race, we should all recognize the tremendous progress we have achieved, but also remember that much work still needs to be done. We cannot allow ourselves to turn a blind eye toward the many advances we’ve made, and we should be responsible enough to distinguish racism from other issues.

Now for my white counterparts, we cannot fail to face the reality of institutional and structural divides that have existed since our founding more than 200 years ago. We cannot ignore the fact that life for most blacks today is still very different than it is for whites when it comes to the areas of education, health care and the criminal justice system. So it is natural for people to address life based on how their own life is situated. In order for us to advance beyond racism, we need to thoroughly analyze and assess the overwhelming ways in which race plays such a critical role.

It’s time for the adults to enter the room and have a real conversation surrounding race. Why do we focus so heavily on one’s race? What are the true ramifications of racism? Where is discrimination still paramount? Where have we transcended racism? How can we determine when race is the cause of an incident and when it is just used to justify other underlying issues? How can we as individuals work toward amending some of our own learned behaviors? And how can we collectively bring about actions that will truly transform us one day into a postracial society?

I remember reading about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressing a gathering after a victorious Southern civil rights battle where many were recounting sacrifices made and the pain sustained in that particular battle. And an old man interrupted the grumblings of the crowd to say what I say today: “We ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be; but thank God we ain’t what we was.”

Sharpton is president of the National Action Network