Obama Should Talk About Race(New York Times Article)

Paul Butler

Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, is the Carville Dickinson Benson Research Professor of Law at George Washington University. He is the author of “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice.”

March 12, 2012

It’s depressing that so many white folks still regard black people as less than human. As apes, to be exact, according to the pioneering work of the Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt.

End the war on drugs, make school disciplinary proceedings more transparent and require official explanations for racial disparities.

It’s unconscious bias, so the New York Police Department can’t say exactly what makes Bed-Stuy and Harlem so much better places to enforce the drug laws than the dormitories of Columbia and N.Y.U. The principal doesn’t know why she calls the police on the rowdy black kid, but calls the rowdy white kid’s mom.

But we know. It’s race.

I don’t know what will make more people treat racial minorities fairly. You could try arguing white folk’s self-interest. The fact that there are one million black people in prison is not good for any American. There’s persuasive evidence that the U.S.’s promiscuous use of incarceration, the highest in the world, is actually crimogenic: it raises the crime rate more than it reduces it.

But when the contest is between their race and their self-interest, many white people will vote their race every time. That’s why so many poor white folks vote Republican.

Maybe having an African-American president would help? Oh, wait. For a moment, I forgot. Well, it might make a difference if President Obama talked about race, but he seems to think if he does, he will be a one-term African-American president. And he’s probably right.

So maybe we should wait it out for 40 years, when according to Census projections, there won’t be any majority race, and there will be many more mixed-raced people. But that project hasn’t worked out so well in places like Brazil and Cuba, where everyone’s O.K. with having a little African blood, but the people with the darkest skin are still on the bottom. In the U.S., too, we are headed to what some scholars have called “multicultural white supremacy.”

But yes, we can take steps to reduce the pain. The criminal justice system gives the cops too much power to enact their racial fantasies on the bodies of black men and boys. Ending the war on drugs is a crucial step to reducing that discretion. Likewise, we should make school disciplinary proceedings more transparent, and require official explanations for racial disparities.

But the folks who get off on punishing black people will find other ways. They always do.



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