Race matters, more or less

Professor Christopher Edley of Harvard Law School delivered this year’s A. Leon Higginbotham Memorial Lecture on Nov. 15 at the Law School. Entitled “Integration, Affirmative Action and Beyond: Defining a Racial Justice Agenda for a New Time,” Edley’s speech outlined his vision for the future of the movement for racial equality. Excerpts from his remarks appear below.

Before Tiger Woods was famous, when he walked down the street, the world figured he was black. It was just that simple. His personal reality in the genealogical and biological sense is far more complicated, as is America’s. But the social reality was rather more straightforward. Race matters. Color matters. And blackness remains the central point of reference as we enter the century of color.

Not just black and white

Those who think that the coming generation will see an end to the problem because color lines will blur are dead wrong. Look at Brazil, where they deny the existence of racial categories. It just happens that overwhelmingly, the poorest people have very dark skin and overwhelmingly, the richest people have very light skin. On the commercials, the people serving the drinks are black and the people receiving the drinks are white. But they don’t have color.

Having said that, we have to be careful. Anyone who visits California will quickly see that if you think of the race problem as black and white, they’ll look at you like you’re from Mars. It’s just not the reality. It’s far more complicated.

Minorities are competing

…Another element of the new politics of race is interminority competition accelerating. The shifting demographics are creating competition that really is far beyond what we’ve seen in past years. Across the nation, Asian and Hispanic communities are proclaiming that their day has arrived and insisting that black elected officials, police department executives, newsroom editors and others must recognize … that black claims must be rebalanced to reflect the new demographics of color.

No arguments about race will be broadly persuasive in the century of color, in the America we are becoming unless that argument takes full account of our union’s true diversity.

Racial identity's limits

…I now confess that I am a cautious integrationist, as out of favor as that may be. Cautious because I recognize the conflict between nationalism and universalism, the difficulty of constructing a society in which we can have identities that are separate while at the same time being part of a whole. We have to recognize that race color is more important than hair color, but it is also not the exclusive definition of who we are. So our challenge is to embrace a vision of integration that does not require us to surrender our racial identity, but instead makes it possible for us to celebrate our differences and be part of a healthy, socially and economically larger community.

Imagine that some years hence, a visitor comes to Earth from Mars and looks at the United States. I want an America in which, for that visitor, there is no visible evidence of a history of racial caste. That in order to know that there had been slavery and Jim Crow, the visitor would have to talk to grandparents [about] distant memories. The visitor would look at our communities and see in the public square that people of all kinds have come into the square not simply to tolerate their diversity, but to celebrate their diversity, to see that it enriches them not only in the material sense but in a deeper personal sense. And the visitor would sit down and talk with us and would see that our hearts have been healed of the poisons of racial hatred, of hostility, of fear, of misunderstanding.

If we can [achieve] this, then our children and grandchildren will say that this century of color was well started. And their grandchildren will say that it was a success if this century of color closes as a century of community, as a century of justice.

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Originally published on November 30, 2000