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The Subtext of Race

I practiced employment discrimination law for about ten years.  One of the lessons I learned, as a white man who has not experienced racism directed at me, is that racism (as well as other forms of discrimination) can be very hard to pin down.  I eventually opened a law firm, and I had to turn away most prospective clients who called or came to my office because there simply wasn’t enough evidence to prove discrimination in court.  In many cases, I would speak to someone who felt they had been treated unfairly, but could point to no tangible evidence of discrimination.  Knowing that judges tend to be quite skeptical of employment discrimination cases, I was careful not to bring cases to court that would only be dismissed.

This is not to say there are no Archie Bunkers left.  I represented one African-American person who experienced virulent racism.  Someone in my client’s workplace used the n-word repeatedly–and admitted doing so.  I don’t want to say more about the case, as I want to respect my client’s privacy, but this was a clear reminder (not that we need it) that, even in the 21st century, racism is not always subtle.

However, 45 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, prohibited employment discrimination based on race, it has become clear to me that most people don’t talk about race in simple terms any more.  My conclusion is that most people, even if they have racist feelings, know better than to express them openly.  Politicians have come to realize this as well– the late Lee Atwater described how Republicans used code words to exploit race.  Sometimes, however, we get a glimpse of what is bubbling under the surface–when expressly racial language slips out.

This is not to say that race and racism simply relate to the way white people feel about people of color.  But, because so much of what we think about race is submerged, it’s worth digging a little deeper to get at what’s really going on.  I don’t think it’s good for anyone that the way people feel about race is pushed under the surface: many white people are surely afraid that, if they say what they really think, they will be labeled as a racist, while people of color have to worry that, if they speak openly about what they think, they will be accused of "playing the race card".

Lani Guinier, who knows something about race and politics from first-hand experience,  argues that "all Americans, not just people of color need to be better schooled in the subtle yet complex ways that race actually works in the 21st century."  Clues about what is happening under the surface come from revealing comments–when a Boston police officer refers to Prof. Gates as a "banana-eating jungle monkey", or when Sen. Jeff Sessions openly wonders why Judge Sotomayor didn’t decide a case the same way as her Puerto Rican colleague.

As Guinier observes, it is simplistic to think about events like the Gates arrest by calling the white officer a racist or by accusing Prof. Gates of playing the race card.  The reality of what is going on underneath the surface is much more complicated.  Everyone in the United States is immersed in race: as Guinier also points out, it is part of our history in a way that affects our present.  I doubt that many of us truly experience other people in race-blind ways.  When we meet someone, we can’t help but note their race, gender, age.  Being white (and male) tends to be the default category–you rarely (if ever) hear someone referred to as "the talented white writer", but you frequently hear women and people of color identified as such–the noted African-American scholar, the Latina judge.

That doesn’t mean all white people are racist or that all people of color are untainted by bias, but it is vital to acknowledge these realities. Prof. Gates can rise to the top of his field, as he is, but he will always be known, in part, by his race.  Judge Sotomayor will likely sit on the Supreme Court this fall, but she will always be known by her ethnicity and gender.  

Where does this leave us?  Making real progress on race (and on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other traits) means digging below the surface and avoiding easy labels.  It’s something I see as necessary: our racial and other baggage prevents us from realizing our full capacity as a nation.

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Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson

Chris is a lawyer and professor at American University who writes frequently about current political and media issues. His writing has also been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Metroland (Albany, NY), and at