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Legalese Aside, How Do We Talk About Race Nowadays?

This was a week in which the country was reminded of our continuing struggle with race — and how we're still not quite sure how to talk about it.

The conversation started with the actions of the Supreme Court: A key provision of the Voting Rights Act was dismantled, and the University of Texas was told to re-evaluate its affirmative action policy.

But it soon moved to events outside the Supreme Court — to the murder trial of George Zimmerman and celebrity chef Paula Deen's self-defense against accusations of racism.

"[The Deen incident] speaks to the difficulty I think Americans have now with identifying discrimination," says Gene Demby, lead blogger for NPR's Code Switch. "The Paula Deen conversation quickly turned into a conversation about the inner-workings of her soul, right? Whether or not she was actually a racist."

That, Demby says, is in stark contrast to the days of barring black students from entering certain schools.

"We seem to be in a moment in which, because of the ... civil rights victories of the '60s, those kind of blatant expressions of racism became less socially acceptable," he tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "But discrimination and racism seems to still happen, but no one seems to know what they might look like today."

Take the Voting Rights Act decision, for example. The Supreme Court ruled that the formula for determining which states need extra federal supervision is outdated. The problem, Demby says, is that it's unclear what a new metric would be.

"So everybody knows that race is still an issue, it still matters," says Phillip Atiba Goff, who teaches social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The debate is: How does it matter, and how do we come to make sense of it?"

He adds: "As we've diversified, we've decided we don't want to make attributions to genes, we don't want to say a group of people is just lazy ... because we know that's not true. But we haven't replaced that with anything else.

"So instead, all we're left with is a language that just says, either you're racist or you're not, either you're lazy or you're not. And we don't have anything that's sort of worthy of the great anxiety we still have around racial inequality."

Goff notes that inequality is persistent or even increasing, despite a measurable decline in prejudice. He says we need to lose the assumption that without prejudice there is no problem and find new ways to tackle the complex issue of inequality.

The law does not reflect these subtleties, says civil rights scholar Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She says the voting-rights decision "reflects a colorblind Constitution that sees civil rights amendments as requiring the government to ignore race and the court to only protect against blatant racial classifications of the kind that existed in the Jim Crow era."

To show how the nuance can be lost, she points to state laws requiring various forms of identification to vote.

President Lyndon Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Getty Images
President Lyndon Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Voter-ID laws ... appear to be race-neutral, but we know they have a disproportionate effect on preventing voting by minorities," she says. "So those kinds of more subtle forms of discrimination that still have a very powerful effect to disempower and to prevent full participation continue to exist, but the court doesn't see that."

So winning legal cases, Roberts says, tends to require evidence of "smoking-gun statements about racism."

Battling unequal treatment shouldn't take place solely in courtrooms, she says — though litigation is still important.

"There is a need to use a variety of other strategies, like legislative strategies, institutional policies — like the University of Texas's affirmative-action policy," Roberts says. "And also, let's never forget that the civil rights movement was a movement of people struggling to overturn an unjust system, and so protests by ordinary people [are] still important."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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