DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Question of Race in the 21st Century

Ever since our founding as a nation, race has played a key role in the American experience. That is still true today, but as we head through a rapidly changing 21st Century, the question of race takes on a new urgency.

"It's not a question of numbers, it's a question of status," says Roderick Harrison, a senior research fellow at the Civic Engagement and Governance Institute's Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Harrison was one member of a Center for American Progress panel which recently examined the changing meaning of race in the 21st Century. He was joined by:

  • Rinku Send, the president and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation
  • Julie Downing, an associate professor in the Department of Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and
  • Hillary O. Shelton, the Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy of the NAACP
Much of the discussion focused on the best ways to get an accurate census counting of American minority citizens. In 1960, census takers simply checked the box of the race they thought their interview subjects belonged to. Now, census respondents choose their own racial identity, which obviously is more accurate. 

But problems still remain."We have Latinos not wanting to be recognized so there is an under-reporting of Latinos," Downing said. They say 'I am an American citizen and I want my citizenship to be recognized. I don't want to be discriminated against."

Then there is the growing number of Americans who come from mixed races. They may view themselves as white, but not all Americans will do so. "When many people see Barack Obama, who is racially mixed, they see black. Or when they see Tiger Woods, they don't see Thai. They ask is he going to be eating fried chicken at the Master's," Harrison said.

But why is accurate reporting of minorities so crucial? The answer, the panel concluded, is quite simple - to solve a problem you must first be able to accurately measure it.

"We need that information to see how close we are coming to full inclusion and full parity," Harrison explained.

The panel members agreed that while race relations may be better than they once were, there is still much room for improvement.

"I am afraid we're going to just stop at accepting diversity and not move forward in terms of equity and justice," Send said. "We can't just date our way out of inequity. People say it will all even out over time and that is just not going to happen. The problems we're dealing with are institutionalized and systemic. We need to change the rules to take apart the hierarchy."

Harrison said fear is also exacerbating whites negative fears toward non-whites. Much of that is fueled by projections that by the mid-21st Century, there will be more non-whites in America than whites.

"They (many whites) see this change as destroying their America. They say these people are taking over. They see growing diversity as a threat to their privilege. It is a this is mine, this is not yours attitude," Harrison said.

The current hard economic times in America is also factoring into widening of racial divisions. "Under the pressures of economic distress, there is a search for scapegoats which always ends in the finding of minority populations who are either the cause of the problem or a barrier to the solution," Harrison said.

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