The Difference We Haven't Overcome: Why the Color Line Endures in America

Before the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, recedes in the rear-view mirror, let's be straight with ourselves about what the events surrounding his death tell us about race in America.

Lesson one is that race -- an artificial social construct that in this country means a set of physical features and characteristics -- matters more than other forms of difference (gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity). Race stands apart mainly because of our inability to reduce or remove racial barriers, improve communication around it or change an enduring and dire set of consequences associated with it.

Second, Ferguson shows us why race remains an intractable issue. The problem is not a matter of individual prejudice but rather one of systemic racial bias or racism. Prejudice may have motivated the officer who shot Michael Brown, but it does not account for centuries of negative outcomes for people on the wrong side of the color line.

And third, Ferguson demonstrates that how we talk (or don't) about race both reflects and reinforces institutionalized racial bias and its consequences. Simply expressing our opinions does not advance understanding because opinion keeps racial discourse at a level that is both superficial and inflammatory. So let's look at the factual basis for my claims.

Race is the different difference. Other historically oppressed groups in the United States have seen dramatic improvement in their circumstances. Women have slowly but surely won a series of victories that have brought them increasing parity, both in the workplace and as legally recognized equal partners in the home. A growing number of states have legalized same-sex marriage and extended the same financial benefits to same-sex couples that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples. Yet the quality of education, mental and physical health, legal protection and other rights, services and outcomes remain markedly inferior for blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and others oppressed because of their skin color. Black American adults report, on average, more incidents of racism than other racial minority groups and suffer well-documented psychological stresses as a result. Yet among the 52 examples of stresses listed in a recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, race was not mentioned and discrimination was noted only once.

Racial bias is powerful because it is systemically institutionalized. Our society views race as a set of permanent, heritable characteristics that include temperament, behavior and ability. If you belong to a racial minority, all the things that are thought of about people of that group are thought about you. Thus the police feel entitled to shoot, choke and beat black men because of the belief -- engrained over centuries of enslavement, segregation and social racial stratification -- that black people, and especially, big, black men, are dangerous.

How we talk about race reflects and reinforces institutionalized racial bias. Race has enormous variability, yet we use terms like "the black community," as though blacks are a monolithic group whose members all share the same viewpoint. We never say "the white community."

We say, "Will the black community be calm or will it be upset? We've got to keep them calm." We focus on the behavior of blacks instead of the conditions that contribute to their behavior -- for example, the denial of access and opportunity, as illustrated by fact that the police and elected officials in Ferguson are white, while blacks constitute the majority of those stopped, ticketed, fined and sent to prison.

Meanwhile, it's as if whites aren't racial beings. When Eric Garner, a black man on Staten Island, died after police put him in a chokehold, interviews with black people focused on their anger about race. White people interviewed primarily were leaders who spoke about containing or moderating the situation. Yet it is white people who primarily construct and influence the daily lives of most black people in our society -- so shouldn't we probe their feelings and beliefs about race, too?

We prefer to discuss racism as hate by individuals, or as a function of economic inequality, with the result that the meaning associated with race and racism is dismantled and fragmented.

When we talk about Ferguson in 2014, or Los Angeles in 1992 or Newark in 1968, we don't talk about institutionalized racism as a component of what happens or of why "they" are upset. Rather, we worry that "they" are out of control. We recite the sad litany of names of other young black men -- Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Ronald Madison, Sean Bell -- but we focus on these killings as isolated events. Meanwhile, the list continues to grow. Until we acknowledge that we all have race; that we vary within racial groups in how we understand our race; and that racism hurts and harms people emotionally, the numbers will continue to be too great for any of us to bear.