Why We Are (Still) Talking About Race

Video version of this blog post.

In March of 1891, eleven people were brutally murdered by a mob in New Orleans. The crowd that killed them numbered in the thousands. Those who committed the atrocity were never punished. The next day, The New York Times published an editorial praising this act, calling those who had been killed “sneaking and cowardly”, “descendants of bandits and assassins”, and “a pest without mitigation.” The Times continued, “Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they…Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans.”

The eleven were murdered because of widespread hatred of their identity. They were Italian-Americans.


The reason I tell this story is precisely because it is not especially relevant. I come from Italian-American ancestors myself, but the events in New Orleans a century ago are not something I learned about growing up. Anti-Italian sentiments have almost entirely vanished from our culture. Whether you can tie your own heritage to Italy or not, we all generally agree: beyond the occasional joke, being Italian-American in 2022 does not put you at any disadvantage.

But today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Today we honor the man who is most associated with the modern Civil Rights movement, from the 1950s to the present day. Today we remember Montgomery and Birmingham, the March on Washington, and Bloody Sunday. We remember an assassination that shook the country, and the many events and leaders that were inspired by Dr. King in the decades since.

The near total irrelevance of being Italian-American on this day brings into sharp focus the profound, ongoing relevance of being African-American every day. Because we all agree about the modern-day experiences of Americans with Italian ancestry. But we do not agree, not at all, about the lives of black Americans. Based on a survey of over 6,000 people, Frank Newport of Gallup writes:

Only 18% of blacks are satisfied with the way blacks are treated in this country today, compared with 51% of whites who say they are satisfied with the way blacks are treated [1].

The analysis becomes only more harrowing the deeper you dig. According to Pew Research, 84% of people who lean Democrat believe “white people benefit a fair amount (or more) from advantages in society that black people do not have.” Only 28% of people who lean Republican agree. [2]

This is why the issue of racism persists in America. It’s because the American people do not agree on modern-day reality of racism. And the data shows no discernible trend. For twenty years now, black and white Americans have been at least 20 percentage points apart on this question. We cannot address an issue if we don’t have a shared understanding on what the issue even is.

I am not here to convince you that racism today is worse, or not as as bad, or exactly what you thought it was. Nor do I think that national polls will be compelling to everyone in an era where so many of us no longer trust institutions.

But I do believe, upon reflection, that you’ll find you agree: we are far, far apart. And to find a way forward, we all must come together. Even if that means admitting that we do not know.


[1] https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/247178/reparations-black-americans-attitudes-race.aspx

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/12/17/views-on-race-and-immigration/pp_2019-12-17_political-values_4-01/

https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/312590/american-attitudes-race.aspx

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