This month’s frenzy over the racially offensive name of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s hunting camp amused me. No, we can’t be a postracial society if we avoid honest discussions of race, race relations and historic slurs. But other racial discussions are more important—and we have avoided them for too long.
Our willingness to sweep the word “nigger” away in polite conversation, even as young black men shout it at each other on every corner, greatly contrasts with the ways race still makes a difference in New York.
Those same black men are more likely to be stopped and frisked, more likely to be arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana, more likely to end up with criminal records, and more likely to find themselves shut out of opportunity, in part because of the disparate impact of New York State laws.
When I served in the Legislature, my colleagues largely viewed that disparate impact through the prism that was the color of their own skin. From my perspective, reforming the Rockefeller drug laws and police enforcement tactics was often hindered by misunderstandings of how race and identity play out in the criminal justice system.
Despite data showing that seemingly race-neutral statutes are applied differently when black defendants are brought before a predominantly white bar of justice, it was not easily accepted by my white colleagues.
Hundreds of thousands of young black men have been stopped and frisked by the NYPD, and only a tiny fraction arrested for major felonies, poisoning police-community relations in the process.
Under the Rockefeller drug laws, minority group drug dealers and users were imprisoned in higher numbers and given longer sentences than similarly situated white offenders. And too often, black defendants were wrongly convicted based on sloppy police work, false confessions and incompetent counsel.
Years of effort failed to change those laws until New York elected a black governor and a minority-led, Democrat-controlled State Senate. They finally achieved those reforms, as well as a redistricting law that counts incarcerated black and other minority prisoners in their home districts instead of predominantly white rural upstate communities.
Contrast that with how quickly the Department of Environmental Conservation moved this summer to change the little-known names of two roads, a stream and a lake when researchers discovered state regulations included the word “Nigger” in their names.
Too many of us accept whitewash as a solution, instead of confronting the unresolved issues of race and racism that lie beneath our postracial veneer. The racial components behind too-high rates of black male incarceration and unemployment, for example, remain unaddressed.
Yet it is easier to point fingers at those who mar that veneer with a racial indiscretion. The media’s inability to say or print the infamous “N-word” is absurd: Our discomfort with this word has even led to a sanitized version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a mighty work that was meant to prick our racial sensibilities.
Long before today’s rap music and culture, Huck Finn liberated me from the oppression signified by the term. Nigger Jim was a good man who would not and could not be defined by a name. And neither should black Americans today.
Like Mark Twain, we should prick our racial sensibilities and perceptions. We should engage each other in a frank discussion of race relations that goes beyond the short-lived ire at outdated place names and shibboleths. Unless we honestly confront the enduring significance of race and the role played by our different perceptions, we will bequeath this unresolved burden to our grandchildren.
Michael Benjamin retired from the Assembly last year after eight years representing a Bronx district.