The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a wide range of political, social, and intellectual contributions to American life, but in the popular imagination, he is remembered most for his dream of a society that has moved beyond race. In the forty years since his death, we have tried to judge people “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We have been striving toward a society where racism is easily identified and quickly purged, where there is a level playing field for everyone, where we barely notice the racial and cultural differences between us.
The last fifteen years have witnessed an explosion of local projects and programs in which ordinary citizens get together to talk about, and do something about, race and racism. These efforts have brought about a wide range of tangible outcomes and policy changes. But they have also led to some unexpected conclusions: it turns out that when people sit down to talk candidly about issues of race, they begin questioning some of the key assumptions of King’s vision. Instead of a colorblind society, they describe a culture where racial and cultural differences play a more prominent, productive, and challenging role than ever before. If these dialogues are any indication, race is here to stay.
This is a disturbing conclusion for those who believe that we have already realized King’s dream – that racism is already a thing of the past. It can also be unsettling for those who think racism is alive and well. Senator Barack Obama had to confront these contrasting viewpoints in his major speech on race last month. Obama disavowed the inflammatory remarks of his former pastor, but he also described racism as a continuing challenge, a still-imposing obstacle in our “path to a more perfect union.”
Much of the local public engagement work began in the early 1990s, when the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson cases created a mandate for public dialogue on race. Elected officials and other local leaders realized that, while they might address race-related issues through their work in areas like economic development or housing discrimination, they also had to deal directly with the race-related perceptions, biases, and beliefs of their constituents. This kind of public outreach had rarely been done before; most communities lacked venues for people of diverse backgrounds to talk to each other about race.
By involving people in discussions of race, local leaders hoped they could overcome community divisions and prevent public debates from being dominated by extreme voices. A wave of local public engagement efforts swept the nation, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of people in forums, trainings, workshops, and small-group dialogues. Many local leaders became experts on how to recruit citizens and set up productive meetings; in this way, race has helped propel a new wave of democratic experiments, transforming the citizen-government relationship on many different issues.
In most cases, these projects have been successful at easing racial tensions, changing local policies, and inspiring people of different backgrounds to work together. But in these discussions, participants tend to challenge three traditional assumptions about race:
- They question the notion that racism is just an easily identifiable, individual sin – that we are all either racists or non-racists. When people take a closer look, they usually begin to see racism as a blurry spectrum, a series of individual and institutional biases that get progressively more inaccurate and damaging. Rodney King’s question, “Can’t we all just get along?,” was a basic plea for tolerance, but once citizens begin to talk about race, they usually go much farther than that, addressing complex issues of institutional racism as well as simpler forms of prejudice.
- People examine the belief that we should learn to tolerate, compensate for, and eventually ignore the cultural differences between us. Citizens cherish their cultures and traditions, and want to hold on to them. As they begin to recognize just how diverse their communities are, they often acknowledge that these differences will probably always affect how people interact with each other. Diversity is both a strength and a challenge: sometimes you celebrate diversity, sometimes you have to deal with it, but the challenge is how to do those things effectively, not how you can make differences disappear.
- People test the assumption that a “level playing field,” where every individual has a uniform opportunity at happiness and success, is the best outcome we can hope for. In its place, their actions seem to suggest a field where the players are equal but different, and the focus is on helping them work together.
So race has emerged, more explicitly than ever, as an enduring public priority like education or poverty. Local officials are one barometer for this change. “At the local level, we understand the critical role of race,” says Charlie Lyons, a selectman from Arlington, Massachusetts. “We deal with race every single day, in almost every aspect of our work.” Jim Hunt, a Clarksburg (W.V.) city councilman, draws a connection between our ability to address race and our ability to address other kinds of divisions. “If we can get better at dealing with difference, we can tap into more of the strengths and assets of our communities.” (Both officials have served as president of the National League of Cities.) Cultural difference is being recognized as both a positive and a negative, as a core consideration in problem-solving and local governance.
If the presidential campaign is any indication, the dynamics of the race issue may change at the federal level as well. But this may require a new vision of racial progress, a dream based on the reality of local discussions on race and difference. We are not striving for a homogeneous, colorless future, but a diverse, candid, cooperative culture.