As a part of President’s Day Weekend and midway through the month that we designate as Black History month, I had an opportunity to attend an event titled “Race in America and Where Are We Now?” in Washington, DC at the Jewish Community Center on Saturday, February 16. I attended a panel discussion that was a part of the series with top thought leaders and writers on America’s oldest and most divisive issue. Panelists on the Saturday panel included NPR’s host of “Tell Me More” Michel Martin, moderator, former RNC Chair, Michael Steele, The Root’s White House Correspondent, Jenee Desmond-Harris, CNN’s Maria Cardona, and Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center.
While the panel and audience discussed some of the many ways that America has advanced in our not so post racial society, there is still much more work to do. Looking at the Freedom Riders exhibits on display at the event and hearing remarks from the audience showed the extent to which we’ve come.
Leaving the panel discussion, I was still left with the question of how do we ever have an honest discussion about race when many African Americans must often hide their true feelings or retract them once said, for being called racist. By way of example, I recall the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry “Skip” Gates, Jr. who was arrested at his own home in 2009 for an alleged break in—after showing his ID to the police. President Obama weighed in on the incident in 2009 stating:
“I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that [Gates case]. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”
After receiving criticism for his comments, President Obama retracted his comments saying he regretted making them. He later held what became known as the “Beer Summit” with Professor Gates and the arresting officer at the Rose Garden.
A more recent example occurred last week over the discussions of ex-police officer Chris Dorner and why some people viewed him in a more positive light over his allegations against the LAPD . On CNN, African American commentator Marc Lamont Hill stated that some people of color see Dorner as a “super hero” in his revengeful fighting the alleged bias of the LAPD, like the movie, DJango Unchained. Hill was criticized for giving credibility to a killer and immediately apologized for his comments to the families of the victims. It still left the issue open that some people in the African American community online and offline expressed some degree of support for Chris Dorner—not for his killing but for his complaints about the Los Angeles Police Department.
Meanwhile, racial hatred and racist comments made by the vitriol of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and numerous others are almost never provided with an after apology or retraction. The election of Pres. Obama brought hope for America but also brought out some of the most divisive racial comments, racial vitriol and definitely the most divisive Congress in history.
Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele made the case at the end of the panel discussion for being hopeful about racial relations in America. He stated that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was spoken for Generation Y, also known as Millennials, and for future generations to come. And there is hope that we will get to the place that Dr. King dreamed and spoke about in his speech.
First, we must begin to have that honest discussion on race among ourselves. And we all must be able to speak openly and honestly without apology.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, former prosecutor and founder of LegalSpeaks blog who addresses issues on race and gender in law and politics. She also regularly contributes articles to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center blog. As a legal and political commentator she has appeared in national and local media including the Michael Eric Dyson Show, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates, RT TV, CBC- Canadian TV and XM Sirius radio. Her works have also appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Afro American, Washington Post, and Washington Times. Her written commentary has been featured on CNN and in NPR online.