Prejudice is a powerful force

In the aftermath of the Charleston, S.C. church shooting and the recent police incidents leading to the death and harassment of black men and women, many are calling for a national conversation on race.

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But America doesn't need a national conversation on race. Our entire history is a conversation on race.

What we need is something more essential and basic: a way to confront and root out the racial prejudice among whites that has permeated our attitudes and institutions — and placed black Americans at a huge disadvantage in every respect, from the accumulation of wealth to the pursuit of opportunity to the basic American principle that we are all equal before the law and in the eyes of each other.

Prejudice is a powerful force that for African-Americans sadly seeps into their most cherished of family relationships: parent and child.

When I raised my kids, I never had to tell them not to go for a run with anything in their hands in case someone thought they stole it — and certainly not something like a flashlight that could be mistaken for a weapon.

I never had to tell them not to touch small items in stores and always to get a receipt — to avoid being suspected of shoplifting. Nor did we ever game out how long to stay in a store before leaving — walk out too quickly or linger too long and it might arouse suspicion.

It never once crossed my mind to advise them that clothing, such as a hoodie or sweatpants, could get them noticed by police.

And because I assumed they would never have a run-in with law enforcement, I never had to tell them not to argue with a police officer and never, ever to put their hands in their pockets when confronted by a cop.

I never had to say these things because I am white. But every black parent I know has this talk with their children. They call it "the rules" — rules for survival in a nation that doesn't always see them as equal. That parents have to advise their children that they will be doubted, distrusted and feared is perhaps the saddest statement about our racial culture in America.

Nor is criminality the only default stereotype black Americans must shoulder daily.

Blacks always come out at the bottom when surveys ask Americans to evaluate the intelligence and work ethic of various ethnic groups. And these deep-seated prejudices and doubts have real-life consequences.

Black children as early as kindergarten are routinely placed into less challenging tracks in school.

Companies more frequently call back job seekers with names perceived as white than those with names identifiably black — or as President Obama put it in his Charleston eulogy, employers "call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal." One recent study found that supervising attorneys were far more critical of a memo when they believed a black and not a white lawyer had written it.

And it's a taint that haunts them through life. Black adults looking to rent or buy a home are told about and shown fewer places than whites. When I sold my home earlier this year, it never crossed my mind to box up all mementos and pictures that could identify the color of my skin — because in predominantly white neighborhoods, buyers show less interest in homes where African-Americans were living.

Medical experts increasingly wonder whether the stress of racial prejudice contributes to high mortality rates among adult African-Americans. Call it death by a thousand cuts of daily bigotry.

Even with the burden they have endured, the vast majority of African-Americans — contrary to media caricatures — work hard to achieve the American Dream and provide their kids with support at home and an education to build their future. That whites could consider blacks "lazy" is startling given that black sweat and toil built much of this nation.

That's not to say that white prejudice is the only weight black Americans must bear. Among blacks, there is much work to be done to address family breakdown and the disproportionate share of crime that blacks commit.

But broken families and street crime are not inherently black or white. They are a product of historical circumstances arising from our nation's original sin — slavery — and exacerbated by Jim Crow and domestic terrorism. This history would not have been possible without white prejudice and the power to impose it on black American lives.

Progressives often speak of the privilege whites enjoy without ever being fully conscious of it. Real estate appreciation? That's because white homes were never redlined. Job opportunities? That's because employers presumed they were capable and intelligent.

But if we want white people to dig down deep and confront their prejudices, labeling their American Dream a result of "white privilege" may be counterproductive.

That's because most white people who have climbed into the middle class — from factory workers to managers — have done so earnestly, by striving to get ahead and playing by the rules. To suggest that their lives are built on privilege will evoke a bridled, defensive response.

The better approach: show how white prejudice unfairly handicaps black Americans.

What we want is a society in which random blacks no longer endure the institutional and interpersonal prejudices that keep them from having the same opportunities and advantages as random whites. We want a society where skin color is descriptive, not defining. And the first step in reaching that goal is to root out white prejudice — so when Jamal interviews for a job, no one will ever judge him as less competent, hardworking or intelligent as Johnny.

Steinhorn is a professor of communication and an affiliate professor of history at American University. His expertise includes American politics, culture and media, strategic communication, the presidency, race relations, the 1960s and recent American history. He is author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and co-author of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race. He is the founding editor of PunditWire, where political speechwriters comment on the news. Before joining the American University faculty, he spent 15 years as a political consultant and speechwriter.