Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Real Discussion on Race

Michael J. Gerson


A Real Discussion on Race

July 19, 2013

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

The trial and verdict in the Trayvon Martin case have provoked a vigorous and bitter national argument. We know that an innocent young man lost his life.  We know that a jury examined the evidence and did not believe a murder was committed. We still don’t know all the details of that terrible night. 

Some argue this was a case of racial profiling; others argue that it was criminal profiling, in which race played only a limited role.  There is little question, in my view, that George Zimmerman’s aggressive tactics helped provoke an unnecessary confrontation.  The tragic outcome, however, does not fit neatly into anyone’s political or ideological narrative. 

This has not stopped commentators from drawing simplistic lessons, and the resulting debate has often had more heat than light. 

In any case like this, no matter the details, the unavoidable context is race – a long history of prejudice and oppression that began before America’s founding and did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The wounds of this history remain understandably raw. 

The question for leaders, in politics, religion, and the press, is this: How do we turn a polarizing tragedy into a useful national discussion?  How do we address these tensions instead of exploiting them?  

We should begin with a recognition: Young African-American men face a series of cultural, legal, and economic challenges that are very real. They often face suspicion and hostility. Their rates of incarceration are disproportionately high; their rates of workforce participation are disproportionately low. More than 50 percent now drop out of school. And their problems have gotten worse for decades, in good economic times and bad. 

Social scientists debate which are the greatest causes of these problems, but they generally agree on the list. Absent parents.  Lingering racism.  Declining blue-collar employment opportunities. Failing schools. The growth of an “oppositional culture” that undermines achievement. Child-support policies that unintentionally penalize honest work.  An incarceration boom that has made ex-offenders less employable.

 If America wants to have real discussion on race, it could begin here: with the vast, increasing segregation of African-American men and boys from the promise of their country. It is, perhaps, the largest single threat to the unity of America, but it is largely absent from the national debate.

It is easy to talk about the details of a sensational court case on television.  It is difficult to look deeper at the reality and causes of racial and social division.  And it is harder still to propose policies that might help bridge that division in practical ways.  But that should be our goal. 

-  Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”