America needs a national conversation on race

The rise in racial hate crimes, white nationalism and voter suppression will pave our way out of democracy if we can’t achieve some consensus on race and racism

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Ten People Killed In Mass Shooting At Buffalo Food Market

Mourners light candles at a makeshift memorial outside of Tops supermarket on May 16 in Buffalo, New York.

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The scholars and pundits who have called what happened in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder — two years ago this week, on May 25 — “a national conversation” on race were wrong. America has never had a conversation on race.

The recent mass shooting targeting Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo, New York, allegedly committed by a white suspect who posted a 180-page racist manifesto online, suggests we need to have one, though. 

National dialogues aren’t a 300-million-person group chat or a series of webinars — or even a dominant narrative gleaned from media reports. National dialogues, which usually happen during a political crisis or when a government is shifting, are more. They are “nationally owned political processes aimed at generating consensus among a broad range of national stakeholders in times of deep political crisis, in post-war situations or during far-reaching political transitions,” as a 2019 report from the United Kingdom’s Institute of Development Studies states.

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National conversations aren’t chatter. They’re blueprints for progress. When they happen, they can produce measurable changes for the better in a country.

In 2007, widespread post-election violence forced Kenya into a national dialogue. The two-year process wasn’t perfect, but it led to several structural changes, including a new constitution and legislation addressing inequality with land reform and a youth employment plan. After the Arab Spring was sparked in 2010, Tunisia’s national conversation led to successful parliamentary and presidential elections. And Senegal in 2016 reduced presidential terms and implemented other recommended reforms as a result of a national dialogue.

While there’s no one way to convene a national dialogue, that doesn’t mean they are completely free-wheeling. Forces outside the government, like mass protests and social movements, can catalyze national dialogues, as was the case in South Africa during efforts to dismantle apartheid. 

That doesn’t mean national dialogues are spontaneous either. On the contrary, they require planning, evaluation and a few conditions: namely, buy-in from elites — the wealthy and those in power — buy-in from the public and a shared understanding of the problem.

In other words, people from every segment of society have to agree that the conversation is imperative.

President Bill Clinton convened a Presidential Initiative on Race five years after the 1992 Los Angeles uprising that happened in response to the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Black motorist Rodney King. The initiative met some of the criteria of a national dialogue. The federal government convened it, gathered national stakeholders together, identified shared values that unite the U.S., and followed an agreed-upon structure.

Through constructive conversations and study, the initiative’s Advisory Board was charged with identifying concrete policies that could be implemented to address longstanding race-based problems. 

Ultimately, experts concluded that the Presidential Initiative on Race didn’t achieve its promise.

A Harvard law professor, and even some board members, thought the recommendations in the 1998 final report were not “bold” enough to eradicate racism. Of the recommendations that were ambitious and forward-looking — ideas like strengthening organized labor and increasing the minimum wage — the administration failed to implement them. 

One reason why the Clinton initiative failed is that democracy wasn’t on its deathbed in 1992 like it is now. The United States hasn’t been in such a precarious situation for decades. 

Even so, having a fulsome conversation on race now seems impossible. The American people seem too far apart for a national dialogue to work today. An August 2021 Pew Research Center poll found that 77% of Republicans believe that little or nothing should be done to make progress on racial justice, while 74% of Democrats said the country should do a lot more. As former President Obama has admitted, this kind of polarization would prevent a national dialogue. 

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However, President Joe Biden could begin to prepare the groundwork for a national conversation on race. Presidents in the past have convened conferences to address social issues (e.g., conservation, aging). President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a White House Conference on Civil Rights in 1966. 

Biden could convene a White House Conference on race as part of his Executive Order 13985 on racial equity. Learning from the mistakes of the 1966 conference, it could explore the feasibility and logistics of a national conversation.

The rise in racial hate crimes, white nationalism, and voter suppression will pave our way out of democracy if we can’t achieve some consensus on race and racism. An effective national conversation can lead to sustained change — and ultimately, the survival of our nation and the freedoms we so cherish.

Helen A. Neville is a professor of educational psychology and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.

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