Why do we still talk about race?

(For the history of racial categories click here.)

While it is true that race is not “real” biologically, it is real in its consequences. Because both the government and society have created advantages to being classified as white, race is a powerful idea that gives privileges to some and disadvantages others. Unfortunately, deciding to pretend race no longer exists as a social category will not deal with the very real consequences that the concept of race has created.

If researchers and the Census stopped capturing racial categories we wouldn’t be able to quantify many of the racial disparities that exist today. We wouldn’t know economic disparities – like how applicants with black-sounding names (ex. Lakisha and  Jamal) are 50% less likely to get a callback on a job than applicants with white-sounding names (ex. Emily and Greg) even when their credentials are identical. We wouldn’t be able to understand the wealth gap – that the median net worth (assets minus debts) of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, and that this gap has been increasing, not decreasing. We wouldn’t be able to understand that, though blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates, Black and Latino males are three times more likely than white males to have their cars stopped and searched for drugs – even though white males are four-and-a-half times more likely to actually have drugs on them when they are stopped. We wouldn’t know that the worst environmental hazards are located in impoverished black and brown neighborhoods – resulting in higher rates of illnesses like asthma and lead poisoning among African American children.

Talking about race and it’s differential advantages is important to dealing with our unequal pasts and our still unequal present.

Let’s use an analogy similar to one Tim Wise uses to understand this: If the people who came before us dumped tons of toxic chemicals into our rivers and on our lands, the solution to getting rid of that pollution is NOT to pretend it doesn’t exist. If we stopped talking about it, it would still be polluting our environment and killing us slowly. Similarly, though we did not personally create racial categories and racist systems, they were created before us and were created in such a way as to bestow unequal advantages. Like the pollution, much of that is not our personal fault. Yet someone has to clean it up. And ignoring the pollution (the racial categories that bestow the unequal advantage) is not going to fix the inequalities.

Just like pretending pollution doesn’t exist is not the same as getting rid of pollution, pretending race doesn’t exist is not the same as creating equality. Because racism is more than just individual prejudice, to combat racism we must identify and then remedy the social problems that give some people advantages and disadvantage others.

Talking about race and it’s differential advantages is important to dealing with our unequal pasts and our still unequal present. It is how we get rid of the advantages and “get past race.”