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Let’s talk honestly about race

Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Eric Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, gave a speech last week. In it, he characterized the United States as “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing our tortured racial history. Many people were offended etc. Others believe race is no longer an issue. But I beg to differ. Those people are mistaken.

I see Holder’s words as a challenge to us all to have honest conversations about race in America. We are living at a time when the gains of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, have been completely reversed, when the gap in wealth among different racial groups has never been wider, and when the effects of historical inequities have never been clearer in education.

We attempt to distance ourselves from slavery. But the effects of slavery have been felt throughout our history and continue to plague us today as we strive to be the nation we once envisioned – a nation that insured opportunity for all.

But we cannot distance ourselves from history. By talking honestly about race, we give ourselves hope that we can overcome inequality and become stronger than we have ever been before.

We cannot distance ourselves from illegal slave trade that continued from 1808 into the late 19th century and that U.S. presidents from Jefferson to Grant condoned and supported – even if they only looked the other way.

We cannot distance ourselves from a history of slavery of a different name. Prison leasing (or forced labor) of black men and women began after the Supreme Court rescinded the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and continued until World War II. This was the practice of arresting former slaves for not having a job or changing jobs without getting permission from a former employer. Found guilty for these “crimes,” they were sentenced to 30 days of hard labor. But their sentences were increased to up to a year if they could not pay for court costs. Few could, given widespread unemployment in the 1880s. Prisons throughout the South “leased” Blacks to major corporations to work in steel furnaces and mines. There was a 45 percent mortality rate for prisoners leased to these corporations.

We cannot distance ourselves from New Deal politics that allowed Southern legislators to exclude blacks from economic incentives that brought a majority population back to work and helped create wealth that blacks were denied. Many of these same legislators insured that few blacks could take advantage of the GI Bill after World War II.

Predatory lending practices and redlining are all too evident in massive foreclosures. Yet these practices are not new, following on the heels of the government’s disinvestment in urban cities in the 1950s. These practices have existed for years, despite the promise of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

So when will we have an honest conversation about race? When will we all face the fact that our government agencies have been complicit in creating inequality and injustice in housing, education, and health care?

The time is now.

Stuart Greene

Associate Dean

Office of Undergraduate Studies

Feb. 24