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Why Race (Still) Matters
Ebony Coleman
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To understand why, we invited three people to talk to us about race—people who have devoted their careers to investigating the “race factor” through activism, the beauty of science, and the intriguing details of sociology.

Rinku Sen, a racial justice activist, explained that she is “working toward a system that produces good lives for everybody” no matter what their race or gender, or where they start out economically. Dalton Conley is a sociologist who studies “the rules that govern social life,” especially the social and financial gaps between different races. Lasana Harris is a social psychologist and neuroscientist who studies the human brain and what it’s doing when we notice someone’s race. They spoke with us about the concept of race, institutional racism, and the social and economic boundaries that still exist in America. Talking with them helped me see how institutional racism works, and how it can operate in sneaky ways.

—Ebony Coleman


Rinku Sen is the President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank, and the publisher of ColorLines magazine, which covers issues relevant to communities of color.

Rinku, on how she became a racial justice activist:

“My family came from India when I was 5 and a half. I spent my childhood trying to figure out how to be the right kind of American. I watched hours of TV every day, and begged my mom for hotdogs and sleepovers because that’s what I thought it meant to be an American.

“It wasn’t until I got to college that I got any kind of a clue. When I was a sophomore in college there was an incident on my campus where a black freshman got beat up by two white football players. It sparked this whole campaign not just to get some justice in that situation, but also to get more faculty of color, more students of color, and so on. There were meetings and rallies happening, but I was sitting it all out. I thought it had nothing to do with me.

“But then two friends gave me a full talking to. They said, ‘You’re a person of color and it’s time to grow up and go to the rally,’ so I did. I had a shocking experience at the rally, where, for the first time since we immigrated, I felt at home. I started to understand that being an American wasn’t about being white or having blond hair or eating hotdogs. It was about investing in the place you’re in and fighting to make it a place that could include everybody. That’s what led me to racial justice work.”

On the definition of racism:

“A person who says, ‘I’m not a racist, but—’ isn’t consciously a racist. However, you don’t have to be consciously a racist in order to participate in arrangements, institutional policies, or practices that produce racial inequalities.

“For example, a kindergarten teacher isn’t consciously thinking, ‘I need to send the fidgety, rebellious black boys to special ed because they’re black.’ That’s not what’s going through the teacher’s head. But there is a long set of practices in schools that essentially train teachers—in an unspoken way—to send their fidgety, rebellious black boys to special ed.

“Is that teacher a racist? You’d be really hard pressed to prove it, but the result is a racial inequality: a high proportion of black boys in special ed. I think the important question to ask is, ‘What is causing racial inequality?’ And then you can see the contributions each individual makes to that pattern.”

image by YC-Art Dept

On diversity versus equity:

“There is a difference between diversity—having a lot of different bodies in the room—and equity, which means that all those bodies have equal power to set the agenda and create the culture and decide how resources are divided. Racial equity is my goal.”

On the myth of equal opportunity:

“Most white Americans don’t understand how many structural barriers exist for people of color to do well. They really believe in equal opportunity because that’s what they had. A lot of time white people say, ‘Why don’t Latin American immigrants come here legally?’ But there is no system for that. They’re doing what people have been doing around the world for hundreds of years. They see the most prosperous country in the world and see their future there. Most people, whether they admit it or not, would do the same thing.

“Look at the mortgage crisis. It’s easy to say that black and Latino people bought houses they couldn’t afford. What’s missing in that discussion is an explanation of all the barriers to home ownership that black and Latino people have faced for decades. For decades, banks wouldn’t approve mortgages in minority neighborhoods and then, when mortgages finally were available there, they were these terrible, high-interest loans targeted specifically to communities of color. The media doesn’t report on those things, so white Americans have no idea.”


Lasana Harris is a social psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist who studies what happens in our brains when we dehumanize other people—or think of them as animals or things rather than human beings.

Lasana, on racism versus stereotypes:

“Racism or any other -ism means that there’s a power difference. My point of view is that someone can have a stereotype without being a racist. For example, Europeans have a tendency to describe the cultures of other European countries using stereotypes. For instance, an English person might tell you that Italians are lazy.

“Generally Europeans are comfortable stereotyping other Europeans like this because there are not significant power differences between their countries.

“Now, think about racial stereotypes and the history of race in the U.S. These kinds of stereotypes here are much more dangerous because of the power differences; it becomes an -ism. It’s been very difficult for people to talk about racial difference because the power difference still exists.”

On how racial biases change:

“Most people with phobias develop the phobia because of some negative association they have with the thing they’re scared of. Social biases work in pretty much the same way. If you’re used to seeing black people in certain kinds of neighborhoods, you will associate black people with those neighborhoods.

image by YC-Art Dept

“There are studies that show how these associations are formed early in life. In one study before Obama’s election, researchers showed a bunch of 5-year-old kids pictures of former presidents. They asked if it was legal for a woman to be president or any kind of minority to be president. The kids said no, because if so, there would have been a woman or minority in there. They also showed the kids pictures of white families and black families. They asked where the families lived. Of course, the kids put the black kids in the projects, and the white kids in the house. And the researchers concluded that, based on where they go to school every day and what they see in their own lives, the kids had made these racial associations already.

“The real problem is, culturally speaking, stereotypes are promoted in our pop culture. If you’re from Idaho and you’ve never encountered a black person, you go with what TV has told you. Those are the biases you grow up with.

“Thankfully, our ideas about race aren’t hardwired. They’re something you learn over time from your culture and they can change. When people get to college, their world view broadens. They begin to have friends from different races, which they didn’t have before.

“That’s why people who are more educated and live in more cosmopolitan areas have lower levels of prejudice—they’ve been exposed to a lot of different kinds of people, and that experience has broken down whatever stereotypes they previously held.”

On the history of stereotypes:

“It’s important to take a historical view. For instance, where did the stereotype of blacks being lazy come from? In slavery, people weren’t paid for their labor, so being lazy was a form of resistance. When you think about that, then you begin to understand how stereotypes develop.

“It’s also interesting to note that social categories are not fixed. Around the time of World War II, there were biases against Asians. They were treated as automatically suspicious, the way Arabic and Muslim people are sometimes treated today. And at one time it was very bad to be Irish in New York, but now it’s not. So history has shown that stereotypes can change.”

On confronting prejudice:

“Instead of trying to be colorblind, it’s more effective to be aware of your own biases, so you can stop yourself from judging people based on stereotypes. Also, I think society can help by talking about it. People should work on just getting rid of the fear of being politically correct and confront their biases.”


Dalton Conley is Dean of the Social Sciences at NYU and author of many books, including Honky, a memoir about growing up as a white kid in a poor, mostly black and Latino neighborhood in the Lower East Side.

Dalton, on the nation’s first black president:

“I don’t think one president changes society overnight. But I do think there is some evidence from the election that’s hopeful.

image by YC-Art Dept

“For example, the ‘Bradley effect’ went away. This refers to Tom Bradley, an African-American who was the mayor of Los Angeles and in 1982 ran for governor of California. In the polls, Bradley seemed to be headed for a victory, but he actually lost by a couple of points. This indicated that, when polled, voters were not going to say, ‘No, I’m not going to vote for a black candidate,’ but in the privacy of the voting booth their support was weaker than the polls suggested.

“That kind of thing happened again and again with black candidates: The polls showed a certain level of support, but when it came time for the election, the support was actually much lower.

“But Obama, in some places, actually did better on Election Day than the polls indicated. To me, that’s really good news; it suggests that we’re not just seeing political correctness—people really are actually less prejudiced.”

On racial identity:

“Another positive sign is the multiracial categorization that started in the 2000 census, where you can now check more than one box to identify your race. It’s always been OK to have multiple ethnicities: I can say I’m Irish and Jewish and Dutch and no one’s going to say, ‘Well which is it? Make up your mind!’

But race was different. You could only have one. Now that’s not true anymore. Every time you complicate things, it chips away at our ability to cast stereotypes. It makes us take more than half a second to form our judgment and it challenges our assumptions.”

On race and class:

“I think often we attribute things in our society today to race when really they’re class-based. I got into issues of race and socio-economic status in graduate school while sitting in class and studying race and wealth. I saw a graph that measured net worth, which is everything you own minus your debts. It showed that there was this huge difference in net worth depending on race. If you were an average white family, you had a net worth of about $10,000 at the time, and if you were an average African-American family, your net worth was zero.

“When I did analysis, I found that if you compare apples to apples—in other words, if you compare a black family, a white family, and a Latino family with the same wealth level—the kids are going to do about equally well in life in terms of education and jobs. This suggests that simply raising average wealth levels among blacks and Latinos would go a long way toward fixing racial inequality.

“So why do we focus so much on race and hardly on class? Historically, race really structured our society. The institution of slavery structured a lot of the way our government is organized. It’s the reason there’s a Virginia and a West Virginia, two Carolinas, a North and South Dakota.

“In the same way, the inequities that were put in place by slavery and slavery’s aftermath are still being felt, in the sense that black people are much less likely to be middle or upper class than whites. So, I think race still matters incredibly, but indirectly.”

On promoting tolerance:

“There are studies that show that exposure to folks of other backgrounds, races, or social classes does promote tolerance and break down stereotypes. The way researchers discovered this was looking at dorms in college, where people don’t have control over who they have as a roommate—it’s randomly assigned. It’s kind of an accidental social experiment. They looked at them a year or two years later to see the effects of having a roommate of a different race, and they showed fewer racial biases.”

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(NYC-2010-09-06)

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