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Exactly how much does race matter?


Race and racism have been constant features of our news cycle for years now. The latest incidents, at the time of this writing, include Congressman Mark Meadows and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib arguing about racism on the House floor, actor Jussie Smollett’s allegedly racially and homophobically motivated assault and subsequent admission that it was a hoax and the scandal over blackface worn by the governor of Virginia 30 years ago.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen many recurring political conversations centered around race and racism. Different versions of these conversations include:

In basically every sphere of political and civil society, the centrality of race is up for debate. And in extension, the role of racism in shaping political, social, and cultural institutions or personal relationships, is also up for debate. From what I can gather (in an overly simplistic sense, at least), conservatives tend to believe that either (1) racism doesn’t exist or (2) it is not as big of a factor in shaping our society as liberals believe. And liberals seem to believe that (1) although race is a social construct, (2) it is a major force shaping American society today. My own beliefs, I think, fall somewhere in the middle. I believe race is an incredibly powerful fact of life that shapes personal relationships, political outcomes, and society in America. But I think reality is complicated and it is hard to determine just how much race matters.

The need for context

One major element of this conversation that I think is worth addressing at the onset is the need for context for a question like “How much does race matter?” In our national conversations about race, this context is often stripped away. The way in which race matters for an Asian American man applying for a job is quite different from the way it matters for an African American boy in grade school. There has been a flattening, between both the left and the right, in conversations about race, from what I can gather.

The view from the left

To begin with the argument put forth by liberals, the most compelling argument I see related to this topic is the bevy of social outcomes that differ across race:

Evidence like this seems like the strongest evidence in favor of the idea that race plays a major role in where you end up in America. What counterfactual explanation could account for all these facts and all the systematic ways in which people of color experience worse outcomes in society?

Beyond aggregate measures, stories like this one of a Black mathematician who left a tenured position at the top of his field because he felt lonely and disrespected among his peers also paint an ugly picture of the what it’s like to be a non-White person in America in 2019.

Intellectuals and politicians on the left, in return, call for things like a national conversation about race relations in America, changes to criminal justice policies to end disproportionate incarceration levels, recognizing White privilege, among other things. Beyond intellectuals and politicians, changes in the left-leaning electorate in America seem to be there too: Democratic voters around the country are seeing the world more and more in racialized terms and are elevating the importance of racial justice in how they wish to see the world change.

The view from the right

On the other side, some of the most compelling arguments about race and racism from a conservative point of view come from people like Clarence Thomas and John McWhorter.

Thomas’s writings and legal decisions on race paint a picture that the state can provide little or no benefit to racial minorities, the best they can hope for is color blindness. And he is steadfast in his belief that whenever the state gets involved in trying to help racial minorities, they end up treating them as less-than and “eventually cause more harm than good”. His past involvement in Black Nationalism and his commitment to Constitutional originalism combine to create a more complicated picture of how race works in America than the left offers.

McWhorter, similarly, seems to be focused on what modern day anti-racists claim to be interested in fixing. He argues, that if there were two previous eras of race and anti-racism — the first ended with the abolition of slavery, the second with the end of legalized segregation — the third is focused on ending racial prejudice in people’s minds and hearts. And he is unconvinced that this is a worthwhile project. Not because racism doesn’t exist, but because changing people’s inner lives is not possible.

Among the Republican electorate, attitudes about race and racism are moving in the opposite direction. Not only is the Republican electorate hemorrhaging non-White voters but the remaining voters tend to think the role racism plays in America isn’t that it harms minorities but that it harms Whites.

More questions than answers

All of this analysis, so far, hasn’t really broached the fact that I am a non-White American and have had my own journey with race in my time in America. I still don’t think I fully understand the impacts of growing up in Central Illinois around mostly White people, participating in mostly White institutions. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly grasp the small indecencies of being the only non White member of most of my friend groups until I got to college. Or what, if any, impact the fact that I’ve mostly participated in White workspaces has had on my career or personality. And how those experiences came together to shape me, my social outcomes, my career choices, and all manner of things.

Or if any of that even matters. I have yet to fully appreciate how much of the framing of race only happened for me later in life, when I started reading the news more and seeing racial aspects of current events, reading authors like James Baldwin or watching the films of Spike Lee.

The burden of asking these questions, though, seems to be more present in my life than in the lives of my white friends, which seems unfair. Yes, I can choose to ignore these parts of my personal interactions with friends or coworkers, and that is the path I have been able to choose for the most part. But I am also aware that this choice is afforded to me and is not afforded to many other non White people in our society.

So I’m left in an odd place: I know race matters, but how much? I know I should consider the racialized aspects of my personal life and of social and political life but how much? Is the best way to move forward from here to not focus on race so much? To instead frame problems like income inequality, mass incarceration, professional development and so on as containing race as one among many inputs? Or is the best way to continue shaping conversations in racial terms to address the reality of the world we actually live in?

I wonder, Jay, how you think about these things. I wonder if you have personal experiences that map onto any parts of this conversation. Or if you think about this topic entirely separately from your own life. And if you think there is a good way to think about race in America in 2019. My head, as you can tell, spins when I think about this topic.



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Samarth Bhaskar

Samarth Bhaskar

Samarth Bhaskar is a data and strategy consultant. He has worked at the New York Times, Etsy and for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.