Early this morning, I saw a black teenager in a hoodie running down the sidewalk. As he approached a young white woman out on her morning jog, I awaited the inevitable commentary on race in America sure to play out.
The president's unexpected White House press briefing last Friday explained to all who didn't know, or needed reminding, that the American experience is fundamentally different from behind black skin. Surely, this woman had heard his address and this was most likely the first time she'd encountered a young black stranger in a hoodie since the president spoke. This encounter could be a non-verbal conversation on race.
Just over a week has passed since a Florida jury declared Trayvon Martin's killer not guilty of murder. As the verdict sunk in, there seemed to be little surprise at the outcome, especially considering that the prevailing sentiment was the prosecution did not make the strongest case. Given the racial overtones that led to the confrontation, in the nature of the investigation, on display in the courtroom, and in the aftermath, a question arose: Why is it still okay for African-American men to be killed with impunity?
The issue is no longer about the case; as the president said, the jury has spoken. The aftermath has focused on the "Stand Your Ground" laws, racial profiling, and the value of black lives. The result of it all is yet another clarion call for a national conversation on race -- one that this country has not seriously had for decades.
But when the term "national conversation" is tossed around as much as it's been in recent weeks, what exactly does it mean? Usually, the ensuing dialogue consists largely of the loudest black and white voices talking over and past one another about the concepts of white privilege, stereotypes, race cards, and victimization.
Both sides try to communicate how the complex issue of race in America makes them feel. The president's address was also an attempt at conveying to the nation how it feels to be black. It was a plea for understanding and empathy as the black population struggled with the perceived message sent by the acquittal of Martin's killer. But sharing feelings, while important and necessary for healing, is not the national conversation this country needs to engage in now.
The conversation that needs to take place is about how racism is woven into the fabric of all that prevents the union from becoming more perfect. If America is Icarus, then racism is the wax-melting sun that will be the country's undoing. History has shown that no matter the economic conditions or international threats our nation faces, they pale in comparison to the peril of a racially divided America.
A real national conversation on race examines why the black American unemployment rate is 13.7 percent, which makes it the highest in the nation and more than double that of whites. As the economy stabilizes, black unemployment has increased by a half a percentage point over the last four months. Even in 1999 when the country experienced its lowest unemployment rate in 50 years at 4.2 percent, black unemployment was at 8 percent, the lowest it has ever been. In other words, when the white unemployment rate equals the best rate blacks have ever known, the nation is in a recession. Why is the African-American job rate in a perpetual state of depression and recession? And why is that okay?
The conversation has to talk about education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national black dropout rate was 8 percent in 2010 compared to 5 percent for whites. The numbers are not as close as they sound: a 2008 statistic shows that year only 47 percent of black men graduated compared to 78 percent for whites. There is 13 percent college graduation gap between whites and blacks, and 81 percent of blacks have student loan compared to 64 percent of whites. Taken together, this means African-Americans dropout more, have fewer degrees, yet carry more education debt than any other race. Why is this ok? What is being done?
The conversation has to talk about jail. Black males only make up about 6 percent of the nation's population, but are 40 percent of the prison population. It has to talk about every socioeconomic factor. African-American life expectancy is four years shorter, poverty rate is nearly 15 percentage points higher, income level is 50 percent less, single parent home rate higher by more than 40 percentage points, and average household wealth is less than 17 percent of whites. Why are all these things as they are?
What explains the justice system, the economy, health care, our schools, the job market, and even our families all having large race disparities in outcomes? This is the conversation about race we should be having, not about trying to understand or explain away the discriminatory cowardice of a self-appointed neighborhood watchman.
The real conversation must be had on the floor of the Congress with a strong, unified Congressional Black Caucus presence leading the way to pass targeted legislation. It must be had at the tip of the President's pen signing executive orders that address racial disparities. It has to leave the streets where marches occur and leap off the posterboards of protest and into the ballot box, community centers, and homes around the nation.
The real work happens off camera; the conversation will not be televised.
As for the young black teenager and white woman out on a morning jog, as they approached each other, they both nodded a "good morning." And then they continued on their ways. The conversation about race that sees this quiet exchange as a victory is not the one we need. It's the conversation that addresses what happens after that encounter -- as they both run off in different directions and to different destinies -- that blacks have been dying, literally, to have.