Straight Talk on Race Relations

Race relations in the United States are good, have never been better, and in all likelihood their future is even brighter. And the key for continued progress is not complicated: don’t discriminate, and don’t screw up.

Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of the day that his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The first part of that statement gets the most attention these days, but the last part is important, too: isn’t it stating an expectation, a hope even, that we will have standards and that we will judge people by them?

As W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk: “Draw lines of crime, of incompetency, of vice, as tightly and uncompromisingly as you will, for these things must be proscribed.” Again: color line, definitely not -- but character standards, definitely.

Or, to look at it another way, for black advancement there is a legal side (the color of your skin should not be an impediment), but also a cultural side (the content of your character mustn’t be an impediment either).

It is ironic -- tragic, really -- that just as opportunities began dramatically to open up for African Americans in the 1960s, the ability and willingness of too many African Americans to take advantage of those opportunities began to decline, and in particular with the implosion of the black family.

I wrote a column years ago -- it is fleshed out in Congressional testimony -- about the qualities essential for a multiracial and multiethnic society to work. The context was defining what traits are needed for successful immigrant assimilation, but I made clear that these are traits we should expect for all Americans, even if their families have been here for generations.

The ten traits:

  1. Don’t disparage anyone else’s race or ethnicity.
  2. Don’t hold historical grudges.
  3. Don’t demand anything because of your race or ethnicity.
  4. Learn to speak English.
  5. Respect women.
  6. Be civil.
  7. Don’t break the law.
  8. Don’t have children out of wedlock.
  9. Don’t view working and studying hard as “acting white.”
  10. Be proud of being an American.

Note that the first three are variations on the don’t-judge-by-skin-color theme. The fourth is not really an issue here.

So: how are we doing on items 5 through 10?