Let's Talk About Race

Congressional Democrats host a hearing on how racial views color the way we view each other.

Posted: 07/30/2013 07:04 PM EDT

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson (Photo: Courtesy Congressional Black Caucus)

During a "conversation about race and justice" on Capitol Hill led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge, co-chair of the House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson shared this story:

One day, when he answered the phone in his suburban Washington home, the caller mistook Robinson for his son Aaron, then a teenager who had a similarly deep voice.

"Yo, what's up dawg? What's happenin'?" growled Aaron's white friend Rick, sounding like he was straight out of Compton. But, upon learning it was Mr. Robinson on the phone, the kid automatically turned into the '50s sitcom Leave It to Beaver's Eddie Haskell.

It was a teachable moment, during which the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist explained to both of his sons, "When your friend Rick talks like that, it's a pose and a phase, or a costume he wears when his jeans are [drooped]" but at some point he would get over that phase, take off his costume and join a profession of his choosing.

"Society doesn't necessarily assume that about you," Robinson told his sons. "You can do all of those things but people won't assume it's just a disguise or that you're a poseur like your friend Rick."

"It's not fair," Robinson said, "but it's the way it is."

According to Maya Wiley, founder of the Center for Social Inclusion, even Blacks and Latinos "carry negative stereotypes" of themselves and each other.

She also cited an "implicit bias" that causes people to "unconsciously and sometimes unwillingly exhibit bias toward other individuals and groups" that colors the way races view each other. It is also exacerbated by an unequal division of resources and environments like segregated neighborhoods and schools.

"Diversity matters a lot here. The more positive, non-competitive contact we have with one another, the more we reduce implicit bias," she said.

Morris Dees, founder and chief trial attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that people with an implicit bias can be the most difficult to change.

"I find people with implicit vibes probably harder to convince because they don't even feel their racism," he said. "On the other hand, overt racists are the easiest people to talk to. We've got these shared interests and once I start talking to them and they listen, they've got only way to go and that's to change. These people with implicit bias, you've got to educate them on what they're even thinking about."

Wiley also testified that lawmakers could change the way certain attitudes are developed by legislating opportunity.

"What laws we pass matter dramatically in terms of how we understand each other, whether we live together, go to school together, what our schools look like, what our job opportunities [are], and they do impact attitudes," she said during a question-and-answer period.

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