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C. Fraser Smith: We’re not ‘there’ yet on race in America

Attorney General Eric Holder says we need a national conversation about race. He wants to seize the moment provided by the death of Trayvon Martin and by the trial of George Zimmerman.

As matters stand, it is widely reported, Holder’s department would have difficulty making a civil rights case. The Justice Department would have to prove Zimmerman intended to shoot Martin from the start.

So the burden shifts to us — as it must. The law is one thing. Attitudes quite another. The “moment” Holder wants to use as leverage has been with us for decades, if not centuries. It’s never been easy to have a really useful conversation about race, so we haven’t had one.

But various organizations in Maryland and probably other states have been asking people to consider hard truths about race, running away in fear and anger.

Over the last five years, Baltimore’s Open Society Institute has presented a series of forums that address the issue. One of its recent initiatives was entitled “Racial Anxiety and Unconscious Bias: How it Affects Us All.”

“What we don’t know can hurt us and others,” the OSI program asserts, “and unconscious bias, along with racial anxiety, can unwittingly affect our responses and behavior.”

It’s not a tremendous leap from this observation about “racial anxiety and unconscious bias” to the case of Martin and Zimmerman.

Did unconscious bias drive Zimmerman to ignore the police, get out of his car and confront Martin?

The OSI program introduction went on: “The examples of unconscious bias revealed in provocative new research may surprise you. Embedded stereotypes,” the program introduction continued, “affect people of color and whites alike. Understanding these biases is critical, especially for people in positions of power where critical decisions are made — in the classroom, in the courtroom and in the doctor’s office.”

The Maryland Humanities Council has offered a range of opportunities for discussing where we are on race. It has partnered with the state’s Human Rights Commission discuss race in the context of democracy. The Calvert County Library has begun a discussion of racial stereotypes. And WYPR’s “Maryland Morning” has been running a year-long series of broadcasts called “The Lines Between Us.”

The questions are innumerable.

Could a frank conversations have saved Trayvon Martin’s life?

Would a series of discussions make the world safer for the Trayvons still among us?

Is Trayvon Martin dead because of Florida’s stand your ground law?

Is he dead because of racial profiling?

We are dealing here with a brew of issues that suggest we are nowhere near a “post racial society.” Surely many of us want to be there but apparently it’s going to take more work.

If your church or your bowling league or golf club went over the issues in some non-threatening way — possible, I think — we might find ways to communicate some truths.

We’re better on race by far than we were. But we’re not “there” yet.

We need to talk about these things, but getting a full buy-in won’t be easy even now, even after Martin-Zimmerman, even in progressive Maryland.

At least one major agency in Maryland attempted in recent years to schedule discussions on race in communities around the state — producing little beyond anger. Sponsors and venues were difficult to arrange because people wanted nothing to do with the issue.

The deal-breaker seems to have been a conclusion that asking for a conversation is really an accusation: If you want to talk to me about race, you must think I’m a racist. No thanks.

“There’s no question we need a conversation, but it needs to be deeper,” says OSI’s Debra Rubino. Even as some in society want to avoid talking about the lines between us, others can’t imagine why we haven’t moved way beyond talk.

Rubino’s organization is planning another of its conversations, with a topic to be determined.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.