Can we talk?

Monday, Jan. 18, was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. One thing that became evident in the celebrations in Reno and around the nation is that now is the time to reopen the discussion of race in the United States of America.

Last week, this space also had a discussion of race, in which we talked about a quote regarding U.S. Sen. Harry Reid in a new book, Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin: “He [Reid] was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a ‘light-skinned’ African-American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ as he said privately.” The problem with Reid’s quote really wasn’t what he said or even the sentiment he expressed. The problem was that he actually said it. He actually discussed race. That’s what made it controversial.

So, with health-care reform, immigration, the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so many other topics at the tip of people’s tongues, why is now the time to reopen race discussion? There are many reasons, but a fundamental one is that without honest ways to discuss race in the country and what it means to be a minority in this country, it is impossible to talk about health-care reform, immigration, the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so many other topics.

Minorities have less access to health care and have less insurance by percentage. “Insurance coverage—both private and Medicaid—often improved access for children in each racial and ethnic group, but generally did not significantly narrow racial and ethnic disparities in their access to health care,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

When it comes to the economy and unemployment, minorities are getting the short end of a shrinking stick, according to a new report released by Economic Policy Institute, available at “The unemployment rate has been hovering around its 25-year high of 10.1 percent for the past three months … As disastrous as this projected national rate is, it does not adequately reflect just how dire the situation is in some parts of the nation and for some demographic groups, particularly among black and Hispanic workers. We expect to see a huge range of unemployment rates, from a low of 3.3 percent for whites in North Dakota to a high of 27.0 percent for African-Americans in Michigan (higher than the national unemployment rate that prevailed during the Great Depression).”

How can we talk about illegal immigration or the effects of our foreign policy in the Middle East without confronting the fact that many of our policies are subject to the attitudes about non-white people by the predominately white people who run Congress in the United States? How can we talk about the military without noting that minorities are disproportionately represented?

Yes, the United States has made some high-profile choices that bring to fruition Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” for example, our president and a new member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

But no matter where you look, it is difficult to claim that America is a land of equal opportunity for all races, and until we can talk comfortably (or even uncomfortably) about the inequalities, it won’t be.