Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Tired Of Talking About Race? So Am I, But It's Vital

I was thinking about how many times last week the issue of race — or issues around race — were a part of our conversations, whether it was the whole controversy over filling the vacant Illinois Senate seat, the fight for same-sex marriage equality, or the surging homicide rate among young black men.

If you are saying to yourself, Oh, no, not that again, before you turn the dial, can I just tell you: I feel the same way.

Obviously, we decided that one of the key missions of this program would be to explore the various dimensions of this ever more multiracial, multicultural society. So race is going to be part of it.

But believe me, nothing pains me more than to have to report that of all people in this country who are dying before their time, young black men are among the most likely to do so — by a gun pointed by another young black man. One of our listeners wrote last week to say we shouldn't focus on the racial aspects of the story, and we should talk about class. But that, I'm afraid, is not what the data show. Similarly, some people have decried the racial overtones to some of the conversations about California voters approving a ban on same-sex marriage.

When people say things like that, it makes me wonder: Do they not want us to talk about race because it's embarrassing? Or politically incorrect? Or because they feel that that will lessen the interest fellow citizens have in fixing this problem? Or is that they just don't want to be bothered because it's not their problem?

And if any of those things are true, then you know what that means? Race still matters.

Let's try the usual thought experiment, flipping the script: Would anyone say we shouldn't talk about the fact that young white women and girls are more likely to develop an eating disorder? Should we not mention gender when we talk about the people who are most at risk? I doubt it, because few people assume that the majority of white girls who don't have eating disorders actually do have them just because a minority of white girls do, and healthy white girls are not expected to apologize for, or explain, or work overtime to avoid being labeled or stigmatized.

There are no pundits defending the practice of profiling young white women, with that fake regret some have perfected, because they might develop an eating disorder. ("Well, it's unfortunate that some of these fine young women are being inconvenienced by this additional scrutiny, but what can we do?")

So, yes, race still matters. The question for all of us is how much — and when? When do we need to back off and cool off ? But when do we need not to? When is it urgent, vital and necessary to speak about race?

The question becomes more, not less, interesting with the ascendancy of our first black president next week — or, if you prefer, our first biracial president. As these last great big barriers fall — the first black president, the first black secretary of state, CEOs, filmmakers, school superintendents, the first black NFL or NBA owners — the issue remains not what happens to the few but to the many. How do they move in the world: with the ease and hope of people of other backgrounds, or with so much fear and anger they are moved to annihilate those who look just like them?

I do not have the answer to these questions. I am just thankful I have all of you to talk it over with me.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues