Friday, January 30, 2009

Why We Must Talk About Race Now -- More Than Ever Before

By Carmen Van Kerckhove

Just one day after Barack Obama's historic victory, a giddy New York Times declared that his success at the polls was "sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease."

With ease? This statement contradicts the tightrope Obama had to walk throughout the election. If he didn't overtly address race, people of color would have distrusted him and felt he didn't have their best interests at heart. But had he aligned himself too closely with the race issue, he ran the risk of emphasizing his "otherness" and alienating white voters. There was nothing easy about the delicate balancing act Obama had to perform to win the election.

In the wake of President Obama's inauguration, more people are starting to question why we still need to talk about race and diversity. After all, our president is black. Isn't that sufficient proof that racism in America has met its match?

If you find yourself facing this question at work, here are a few talking points you can use to demonstrate that race is not yet an issue we can afford to ignore.

1, There will always be "stand-outs" like Obama who carve a niche for themselves despite institutionalized discrimination.

For example, a black woman named Madame CJ Walker, the daughter of two former slaves, became the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States (black or white) by creating a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women. She accomplished this feat at a time when blacks were subjected to extreme poverty, segregation, violence, and oppression. Her success during the Jim Crow era did not indicate that discrimination against blacks was nonexistent during this time. Instead, she became successful despite the odds.

Obama, too, is an exception to well-entrenched racism, rather than a symbol of the end of it. Thousands of voters told pollsters outright that they would never vote for a black man. (How many other voters felt the same way but would not go on the record and verbalize it?) Obama won the presidency in spite of racism, not because of its absence.

2. Racial disparities still exist in nearly every aspect of American life.

David Thomas, Harvard Business School professor and author of Breaking Through:The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America, recently told Human Resources Executive magazine that "although the glass ceiling is "no longer impenetrable, talent being equal, the probability of making it to the C-suite is still less if you are a person of color than if you are a white male."

Indeed, the Working Group on Extreme Inequality has confirmed that the racial economic divide between whites and blacks is a quantifiable reality:

* In 2006, black individuals made 54% less annually than their white counterparts.
* In the same year, black families made 58% less than whites.
* In 2004, the median household wealth for whites was $118,300 as compared to just $11,800 for black families.
* In 2006, 75.8% of whites owned a home; only 47.9% of blacks did,
* And when it comes to unemployment, in 2007 4.1% of whites were without work as compared to 8.3% of blacks.
* In 2006, 91% of white students graduated from high school, while just 81% of blacks did. And in college, the disparity is even greater: in 2004, 31% of whites graduated, against just 10% of blacks.

3. The civil right movement began just 50 years ago.

There are hundreds of years of oppression to undo, thousands of laws and unspoken hiring biases to uncover and bring into the light. Fifty years is just the beginning of a protracted struggle to level the playing field.

While no one can deny that progress is being made (pat yourselves on the back for that!), until people of all backgrounds are allowed the opportunity to make a decent living, to buy a home, to send children to college, to receive adequate health care, and to live as equals among all others, we must continue to challenge the powers-that-be which still block equal opportunity.

While it's wonderful to breathe a sigh of relief as a new administration takes office - one that "gets it" - this is no time to let up.

© 2004-2009 New Demographic.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of the diversity education firm New Demographic, specializes in working with corporations to facilitate relaxed, authentic, and productive conversations about race. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and has visited as a guest lecturer at Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia, among many other colleges and universities across the country. If you want to learn how to boost your career by mastering the changing dynamics of race in today's workplace, get your FREE TIPS now at

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