Black Lives Matter. The name itself tends to debunk the myth that America is race-neutral. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter Movement is s helping to expose the nation’s refusal to acknowledge racism and white privilege that is reflected in the fabric of this country from its inception.
There has always been talk among liberals, human relations specialists and others about the damaging effect of “identity politics” on inter-ethnic cooperation. Even though identity politics, racial politics and ethnic politics are never clearly defined, they are nonetheless characterized as a negative to be universally shunned.
Proponents of ethnic neutrality tend to minimize or deny the importance of racial and ethnic identity politics. They rarely spell out their objections or define their derisive terms. This is no minor oversight since the philosophical, moral and legal basis for human relations include, and in fact celebrate race and ethnicity.
However fervent the cries for downplaying race, they do nothing to alter its continuing significance in virtually every aspect of U.S. society. Cries for racial neutrality in a nation still anchored in racism serve to obscure the issues and prolong concrete solutions to the growing problems surrounding diversity.
The significance of race and ethnicity should never be understated. They are the cornerstones of successful collaboration. Intra-group relations remain the foundation for building cross-racial/ethnic partnerships. Racial neutrality proponents pontificate about what does not constitute a valid paradigm for ethnic cooperation. In fact, few people would abide leaving racial, ethnic or religious identity at the door while working with others to develop new methods of inter-group relations.
Another question for proponents for racial neutrality is whether their objections to emphasis on race or ethnicity extend to white ethnic groups or religious, civil rights or ethnic-oriented organizations such as the NAACP, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Asians Advancing Justice or the American Jewish Committee? Absent clear definitions of the much maligned racial and ethnic politics, the political appropriateness of such organizations can be called into question. Race-neutral advocates apparently believe that racial/ethnic politics only serve to polarize communities. However, they do not tell us at which point a person or group crosses the line and becomes racially or ethnically unacceptable.
It is virtually impossible to factor out race in any serious discussion of inter-group polarization or racial or ethnic collaboration. Proponents of ethnic neutrality, when pressed, usually cite examples of so-called extremist leaders, individuals and groups as the basis for their own extremist contention of race neutrality.
Denigrating race and ethnicity also raises the specter of a double standard—one for whites, another for people of color. For instance, few would deny that race was, and is, pre-eminent in the history and development of this nation and that color remains indelible so long as racism exists. Celebrating race should be applauded because it is an entree, not a barrier to successful, intergroup collaboration.
Minimizing the reality of race only makes racial and ethnic collaboration all the more difficult. Suggestions that diversity and multiculturalism are attainable without fully accounting for race and ethnicity are foolhardy. People know when, where and how their best interests are being served and still many buy the Pollyannaish notion that individual group strength is enhanced by denying or dodging race and ethnicity. Primary group interests, by definition, is not sublimated in collaborative efforts. Primary interests enhance, not detract from successful, cooperative efforts to improve race relations. People know from long experience that parties to successful collaborations must each have strong, clear positions. Anything less enhances the potential for an uneven playing field, i.e., uneven bargaining power at the table.
Proponents of racial and ethnic neutrality recommend “identifying and nurturing programs that advance us beyond the basic level of racial politics.” This sounds fine, but what does it actually mean? How can this approach be implemented without actually spelling out what racial politics is and perhaps and, more importantly, what it is not. Otherwise, we are dealing mostly with rhetoric.
Race neutrality advocates also lament, “There is far too much emphasis in celebrating our differences.” Why must celebrating our differences be negative? Is not pride and strength in one’s own racial or ethnic group a bedrock ingredient for racial healing?
Racial neutrality proponents’ blanket condemnation of identity politics is misguided and counterproductive. It actually reduces the likelihood of racial harmony, not the other way around. As long as society continues to dole out rewards and punishment on the basis of color (and class), African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and others of color will continue to suffer injustice and inequities disproportionately.
Far from being xenophobic, racial and ethnic solidarity are the only real avenues for creating new effective models for intergroup cooperation. Organizations seeking to strengthen racial and ethnic cooperation should explore methods that unapologetically acknowledge race and ethnicity as central to sustainable collaborative efforts to improve race relations in this country.