Code Switch
6:07 pm
Sat June 29, 2013

Legalese Aside, How Do We Talk About Race Nowadays?

This was a week in which the country was reminded of our continuing struggle with race — and how we're still not quite sure how to talk about it.

The conversation started with the actions of the Supreme Court: A key provision of the Voting Rights Act was dismantled, and the University of Texas was told to re-evaluate its affirmative action policy.

But it soon moved to events outside the Supreme Court — to the murder trial of George Zimmerman and celebrity chef Paula Deen's self-defense against accusations of racism.

"[The Deen incident] speaks to the difficulty I think Americans have now with identifying discrimination," says Gene Demby, lead blogger for NPR's Code Switch. "The Paula Deen conversation quickly turned into a conversation about the inner-workings of her soul, right? Whether or not she was actually a racist."

That, Demby says, is in stark contrast to the days of barring black students from entering certain schools.

"We seem to be in a moment in which, because of the ... civil rights victories of the '60s, those kind of blatant expressions of racism became less socially acceptable," he tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "But discrimination and racism seems to still happen, but no one seems to know what they might look like today."

Take the Voting Rights Act decision, for example. The Supreme Court ruled that the formula for determining which states need extra federal supervision is outdated. The problem, Demby says, is that it's unclear what a new metric would be.

"So everybody knows that race is still an issue, it still matters," says Phillip Atiba Goff, who teaches social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The debate is: How does it matter, and how do we come to make sense of it?"

He adds: "As we've diversified, we've decided we don't want to make attributions to genes, we don't want to say a group of people is just lazy ... because we know that's not true. But we haven't replaced that with anything else.

"So instead, all we're left with is a language that just says, either you're racist or you're not, either you're lazy or you're not. And we don't have anything that's sort of worthy of the great anxiety we still have around racial inequality."

Goff notes that inequality is persistent or even increasing, despite a measurable decline in prejudice. He says we need to lose the assumption that without prejudice there is no problem and find new ways to tackle the complex issue of inequality.

The law does not reflect these subtleties, says civil rights scholar Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She says the voting-rights decision "reflects a colorblind Constitution that sees civil rights amendments as requiring the government to ignore race and the court to only protect against blatant racial classifications of the kind that existed in the Jim Crow era."

To show how the nuance can be lost, she points to state laws requiring various forms of identification to vote.

"Voter-ID laws ... appear to be race-neutral, but we know they have a disproportionate effect on preventing voting by minorities," she says. "So those kinds of more subtle forms of discrimination that still have a very powerful effect to disempower and to prevent full participation continue to exist, but the court doesn't see that."

So winning legal cases, Roberts says, tends to require evidence of "smoking-gun statements about racism."

Battling unequal treatment shouldn't take place solely in courtrooms, she says — though litigation is still important.

"There is a need to use a variety of other strategies, like legislative strategies, institutional policies — like the University of Texas's affirmative-action policy," Roberts says. "And also, let's never forget that the civil rights movement was a movement of people struggling to overturn an unjust system, and so protests by ordinary people [are] still important."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

This was a week in which the country was reminded of our continuing struggle with race. The conversation started with the actions of the Supreme Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Today, the United States Supreme Court lopped off the head of the Voting Rights Act.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's considered one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The U.S. Supreme Court cast doubt on the future of affirmative action in higher education.

LYDEN: But it soon moved to events outside the Supreme Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: From the beginning of one of those highly publicized murder trials in recent history...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Statements began today in the murder trial of George Zimmerman.

MATT LAUER: ...the eruption over Food Network star Paula Deen. So I'll ask it to you bluntly: Are you a racist?

PAULA DEEN: No. No, I'm not.

LYDEN: Voting rights, affirmative action, the Trayvon Martin trial and even celebrity chef Paula Deen. It all adds up to today's cover story: where we are in our conversation on race in America.

To talk about this, we invited in our colleague Gene Demby. He's the lead blogger for Code Switch, NPR's blog on race and ethnicity. We asked him to start out with Paula Deen, who, this week, has faced a groundswell of criticism about racial epithets she's used in the past. She apologized in a tearful moment on the "Today Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY SHOW")

DEEN: I is what I is, and I'm not changing.

LYDEN: We asked Gene Demby what the Paula Deen saga says about race relations today.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Well, it speaks to a difficulty, I think, Americans have now with identifying discrimination. The Paula Deen conversation quickly turned into a conversation about the inner workings of her soul, right, whether or not she was actually a racist. And so, you know, this is a stark difference from the days of George Wallace in the schoolhouse door barring black students from entering the University of Alabama, different from fire hoses and dogs attacking teenage kids.

Because of the victories - the civil rights victories of the '60s - those kind of blatant expressions of racism became less socially acceptable. But discrimination and racism seem to still happen, but no one seems to know what they might look like today.

LYDEN: So, Gene, in the Paula Deen case, we see something that's really clear. We can say that's just inappropriate. Let's turn to the Supreme Court where things seem to be murkier in these two rulings we had this week. One, on the Voting Rights Act; the other, the University of Texas and the affirmative action case. Let's start with that. It's a little harder.

DEMBY: Yeah. Affirmative action is a tough nut. I mean, support for affirmative action has fallen in recent years, especially among white people. People of color still feel really strongly that it should be in place. The Supreme Court is basically asking the lower courts to parse the details of the University of Texas' admissions policy to see how they use race and to determine whether or not they use race in a way that is unfair.

In the Voting Rights Act case, the Section 4, which is the part of the Voting Rights Act that determines whether or not a jurisdiction may have been discriminating against voters, was struck down. The Supreme Court said that the rationale that was in place when the Voting Rights Act was put into effect was, you know, voters has really obvious racism, right, lower voter turnout. Those were the things that were the red flags.

The Supreme Court said that that part of the law needs to be rethought. It could be replaced with something else, but we need to change the metrics. The thing is that we don't know what the metric looks like in 2013. It's not going to be, you know, jars of beans and asking a person of color to guess how many beans are in the jar, as it would've been in, like, 1963, 1964.

LYDEN: Last week, you wrote in the Code Switch blog about a new study from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tell us about that.

DEMBY: That study was fascinating for a bunch of reasons. What Urban Institute did is they took two people - one person of color and one white person - and they sent them to a real estate agent to inquire about houses for rent or for purchase. They did this 8,000 times in 28 cities. And what they found was, consistently, white people were shown more units than people of color were and were more likely to be offered lower rents.

And it's important, people of color in these situations always said they were treated politely. They felt like they were getting the best service. And the only way anyone knew that anything was wrong was because you had this like aggregate data in which people were actually counting the number of units they were shown. And so these things are incredibly consequential even though they're imperceptible.

LYDEN: NPR's Gene Demby, the lead blogger for NPR's Code Switch. Thank you very much for coming in.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Jacki.

LYDEN: The court may have ruled that segregation as we knew it is a thing of the past and we've come to a different point, but does that mean that we've achieved racial parody? Professor Phillip Atiba Goff deals with these questions every day.

PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: So everybody knows that race is still an issue, it still matters. The debate is, how does it matter, and how do we come to make sense of it?

LYDEN: He's a professor of social psychology at UCLA. He says that as a country, we've overcome some history.

GOFF: Blacks were less valued than whites because that was just genetics, and we could all agree on that. And then we've sort of, as a nation, decided that wasn't quite right. And as we've diversified, we've decided we don't want to make attributions to genes. We don't want to say that a group of people is just lazy, is just not trying hard because we know that's not true. But we haven't replaced that with anything else.

So instead, all we're left with is a language that just says either you're racist or you're not, either you're lazy or you're not, and we don't have anything that's sort of worthy of the great anxiety we still have around racial inequality.

LYDEN: Goff advises police departments around the country testing their officers for biases. You might not be surprised to hear some of his findings: Racial bias in a cop can correlate with racial disparities on the street. But others you might not expect.

GOFF: The more officers are worried that someone is going to call them a racist, the more likely they are to use force against black and Latinos than against whites.

LYDEN: How could that happen? Cops, says Phillip Goff, have two kinds of authority.

GOFF: The first form of authority is my moral authority. I am a police officer. You should do what I say. If and only if that authority fails should I use my second form of authority, which is physical authority. So now imagine you're a police officer - black, white, Latino, Asian, what have you - and you're approaching a car full of young Latino men who are going to call you a racist. What kind of moral authority do you have? The answer is you have none. So if anything gets a little bit out of hand, you're more likely to use that other form of authority.

LYDEN: So in other words, solutions for police departments have to be much more nuanced. Phillip Goff points to his work in Las Vegas.

GOFF: They were having an issue where they were concerned about use of force generally. They just felt their officers were using too much force, and this was internally motivated. They said: We can do better than this. We don't have to be using force this much. It turned out a lot of their use-of-force incidents were occurring after foot pursuits. The suspect usually gives up because they're surrounded. Frequently, that's how it happens.

So the person who did the chasing is usually the one who wants to put the handcuffs on. And you punch them once in the kidney just as a price for making you run, because that's a scary experience, running after somebody when behind any corner, you could be hurt or killed.

What they did in Las Vegas was they just said: Whoever was doing the chasing on foot can't be the first person to lay hands on. And as a result, they've had a precipitous drop in use of force and a precipitous drop in racial disparities in use of force. They didn't make anybody more or less racist. They didn't have sensitivity training. What they did was they changed the situation. The situation changed the behavior, which in turn can change the attitude.

LYDEN: We've been discussing this week the ruling at the Supreme Court in which Chief Justice John Roberts said: We are different as a society. It sounds to me like you're saying we are different as a society, but that doesn't mean that we do not hold racial disparities as attitudes still.

GOFF: Yeah. And so he got it right that we are different, but just because we are different doesn't mean that we are better. We see prejudice genuinely declining, because it is. And we see inequality being persistent or even increasing. And what do you do with that because we used to think forever that the root of all inequality was prejudice. And it turns out we were wrong, and we haven't yet begun to talk about, well, how do you get inequality even in the absence of prejudice sometimes?

And as a result, he's looking around at the prejudice and says: I don't see very much of it. Therefore, we must be different in a way that allows us to be able to expire. Except that is on its face a kind of ridiculous logic because the Voting Rights Act was used how many times in just the last election cycle? So if we don't have a problem with inequality, if we don't have a problem with unfairness of treatment, why are we still using those same outdated laws?

We see prejudice declining and inequality persistent are going up. And because we, as a nation, have had a hard time looking at that honestly, now it's almost like we can't look at it at all.

LYDEN: Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff of UCLA. And in response to his question, the Department of Justice used the Voting Rights Act 14 times in 2011 and 2012 to block discriminatory voting practices.

Civil rights scholar Dorothy Roberts at the University of Pennsylvania had similar thoughts about the chief justice's opinion.

DOROTHY ROBERTS: It reflects a color-blind constitution that sees civil rights amendments as requiring the government to ignore race and the court to only protect against blatant racial classifications of the kind that existed in the Jim Crow era.

LYDEN: The Supreme Court may be the most high-profile example, but she says that's a trend across all courts. It's harder these days, she says, to bring and win a case based on racial disparity.

ROBERTS: For example, voter ID laws that appear to be race neutral, but we know they have a disproportionate effect on preventing voting by minorities. So those kinds of more subtle forms of discrimination that still have a very powerful effect to disempower and to prevent full participation continue to exist, but the court doesn't see that. And so in order to win, it's more and more important that plaintiffs be able to show the kind of smoking-gun statements about racism.

LYDEN: Much of civil rights law has come about through litigation. Brown versus the Board of Education, Plessy versus Ferguson. In the context of these recent rulings, is litigation still a way forward?

ROBERTS: I would say litigation is still important. However, with this recent set of Supreme Court decisions, the court is now actively dismantling or weakening laws, policies and programs that have been put in place to address racist practices and protect against future discrimination. Therefore, with the U.S. Supreme Court no longer a champion, there is a need to use a variety of other strategies like legislative strategies, institutional policies like the University of Texas' affirmative action policy. And also, let's never forget that the civil rights movement was a movement of people struggling to overturn an unjust system. And so protest by ordinary people is still important.

LYDEN: University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts.

So as the old front lines of the race debate fade, new challenges are bound to emanate from a more pluralistic society. This week was just another installment in the essential and ongoing conversation about race in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.