Race conversation rises to forefront of national consciousness

Peniel E. Joseph | 8/28/2013, 10:33 a.m.

Whether or not we want to admit it, Americans are finally engaging in a national conversation about race and democracy.

But it’s not happening in a single town hall forum televised on C-SPAN or through a Twitter chat hosted by President Barack Obama, with millions tuning in. No, this conversation has been happening week after week, month after month, all summer, on the steps of the Supreme Court, in the halls of Capitol Hill and in small forums around the country leading up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Indeed, the collective conversation that some called for in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict has actually been replaced by organic discussions as Americans react to a slew of events — from Supreme Court decisions to presidential press conferences to Justice Department decrees. And each one reminds me that this is what democracy looks like when it’s working.

For instance, this past Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston gathered civil rights activists and historians for a panel analyzing the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The panelists discussed the way Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech offered a vision of multiracial democracy while challenging all American politicians to re-imagine the meaning of citizenship and freedom.

Each speaker reminded the audience that even the passage of successful civil rights legislation required constant vigilance and enforcement. They also discussed the way in which President John F. Kennedy’s political evolution on the subject of racial equality paralleled the movement’s own maturity during the Civil Rights era.

Most provocatively, the panel analyzed how King’s famous wish for his children to “be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin” has been hijacked. Colorblind racism in contemporary America substitutes rhetorical equality for genuine racial justice. More perversely, it accuses those who dare to mention race of being racist.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the only speaker from the 1963 March on Washington still living, delivered a keynote address that touched upon his personal experiences as a Civil Rights activist and the struggle for voting rights then and now.

The most striking aspect of the panel and Lewis’ keynote was the forward-looking discussion of how the lessons from 1963 could help contemporary struggles for racial justice.

President Obama himself weighed in on the merits of such a discussion in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, expressing skepticism that politicians could lead such a conversation. Largely prodded by outrage from civil rights activists, Obama helped to start this latest public examination of race in America in July with extemporaneous remarks about Trayvon Martin’s death and the African American community.

The president’s admission that he could have been Trayvon 35 years ago offered the rare insight into him as a black man and father. Obama followed up these remarks a little over a week later in a discussion of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, during which he noted that the historic demonstration expressed nuanced support for racial equality and economic justice.