Inherent divides of both ideology and identity continue to be fault lines in the United States. Politics, from the executive branch down to the local level, only seems to exacerbate these problems. And race, above all, has taken center stage in this wrangling, posing important questions about how Americans might find unity in their diversity.
Or, put another way, in times of such intense division, accentuated by media and politics, how can we find whatever it is that brings us together and reach common ground?
That was an underlying question posed by New America National Fellow Ted Johnson at a recent panel event, which investigated how Americans might bridge the racial divide.
But first: How did America get here? Americans’ thoughts about race have changed greatly even in recent years. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal statistic cited at the event, in 2009, when former President Barack Obama took office, 77 percent of Americans thought that race relations in the United States were good. Last summer, though, a similar poll painted the opposite picture: 74 percent of Americans didn’t think that race relations were in a good place.
In this light, backlash against Obama’s election is perhaps representative of racist feelings that had likely always existed, but that had only recently been forced into the public square.
Yet despite all that, Johnson positions himself an optimist when it comes to working toward unity. “President Obama, like many presidents before him, has said that America is the only country founded on an idea. So if we’re all Americans who subscribe to this larger idea, certainly there must be some measure of solidarity that we can all get behind,” Johnson said.
Actually achieving solidarity, however, is a different matter from thinking it possible.
“Solidarity requires more than beliefs and preferences. It requires commitment and will,” said Tehama Lopez Bunyasi, one of the panelists and an assistant professor at George Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. She emphasized that it’s crucial to see beyond self-interest if we want to advance the larger values of the community. Indeed, while the United States is diverse, its citizens’ fates are nonetheless intertwined. With that in mind, solidarity must include understanding—and accepting—the disadvantages others endure. For panelist Juliet Hooker, who’s a professor of political science at Brown University, this means going beyond sympathy, or even empathy, and embracing “an ethical orientation that moves us to action.”
Part of ethically orienting ourselves ought to include recognizing racial inequality and the role it’s long played in American society. Regrettably, this piece of the puzzle is still missing. For instance, data developed in early 2016 by Lopez Bunyasi on color-blindness and race consciousness found that white Americans who believe that they have a societal advantage are much more likely to support policies that strive for racial equality. In the main, however, the polling found that only 20 percent of white Americans believe that they’re privileged, which makes it challenging even to get conversations centered around solidarity off the ground.
Media can also make it difficult to bridge what divides us, particularly when it comes to how it all too often reifies social stigmas. Popular depictions of racial minorities, especially, frequently aggravate racial tensions and distort reality, yet conflict and strife sell. Even today, “them vs. us” narratives are commonplace, though they typically perpetuate notions of racial otherness.
“White Americans sense that they’re under threat, that they’ll lose dominance, that they’ll lose status and their place in American society,” said Carole Bell, another panelist and an assistant professor of political communication at Northeastern University. “The way in which the media frames certain public policy issues—associating societal problems and their potential solutions with particular racial groups—both reflects and contributes to that sense of threat.” As an example, Bell explained how “racializing poverty” typically fuels opposition to welfare programs, and can bolster the association of black Americans with crime.
This isn’t to suggest that greater awareness is some sort of magical fix. However, “de-racialzing” America’s deep-seated narratives would allow beneficial policies to move forward in small but crucial ways. After all, race is inextricably linked to our identity as Americans. Understanding that it has come with disadvantages for many people is essential to bridging the racial divide.