Monday, March 10, 2008

Is the Race (Problem in this Country) Over?

A Conversation with CLS Professor Olati Johnson and Dr. Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Professor Johnson began by reflecting upon the fact that 40 years ago, the year of her birth, the Civil Rights movement was only beginning to incorporate a focus on poverty issues, and that this focus was quickly dissipated following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. Now, thinking about race issues focuses more upon the intersection of race and poverty, as well as latent racism and the lingering effects of structural discrimination.

If race is less salient, it is only because it is now more complexly understood and manifested. Professor Johnson discussed the idea of "concentrated poverty" representing the intersection of poverty and race issues, noting that middle class black families are much more likely to reside in areas of concentrated poverty. These areas are ground zero for a confluence of educational, economic, racial and social problems and deficiencies.

Pointing to the recently publicized studies of incarceration rates in the U.S., Professor Johnson noted that the increase in incarceration was driven by enforcement of drug laws and that this enforcement was disproportionately aimed at minority populations. Even if this was driven by a higher rate of law-breaking among minority groups, that should not relieve of us of having to consider the conditions that create these trends.

Dr. Thernstrom disclaimed her remarks as a sort of brainstorming session, inviting the audience to help her more fully form her ideas. Beginning with points of agreement, Dr. Thernstrom pointed to the racial divide in many areas, but also pointed to trends decoupling the effects of race and poverty. Urban schools are unacceptable to people of all colors, and Dr. Thernstrom believes that they pose eminently redressible problems.

Turning to candidate Obama, Dr. Thernstrom analyzed the level of white male voting for Barack Obama. These numbers are very high, almost 50% in many states and over that mark in several. These results evidence a turning point for race relations in this country to Dr. Thernstrom. Obama's self-announced "post-racial" campaign belies the fact that black voters see him as a black candidate and are drawn to that. Dr. Thernstrom praised the 1965 Voting Rights Act at the time of passage, but blamed it, as interpreted, exclusively for the persistent pattern of black candidates only running in majority black settings. These safe districts are encouraging white Americans to think of African Americans as "others".

A lively question and answer session followed.

The Columbia Chapters of the American Constitution Society and the Federalist Society would like to thank Professor Johnson and Dr. Thernstrom for the remarks and all for joining this valuable discussion.

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