An Honest Conversation

July 6, 2004

Howard Dean

By Gov. Howard Dean M.D.

During this past Fourth of July weekend we reflected on how proud we are to be Americans. Our pride is justified. Over the last 228 years, America has been a strong force for justice and democracy in the world. But it is also the nature of Americans not to simply congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments, but to look forward. And so as a white American, I want to celebrate the Fourth of July by talking honestly about race. We have come a long way in 50 years and an even further distance in the last 150 years. But, we still have a long way to go.

Last year The Wall Street Journal wrote about a study which showed that qualified African-American job applicants with no criminal record were less likely to be called back for a second interview than white applicants who were similarly qualified but had a drug conviction on their record. We know that Hispanic-American children are more likely than any other group of kids in America to be without health insurance and African-Americans have the highest rate of infant mortality in America.

I do not believe most whites are racist. I do believe we are often indifferent to race and this indifference is perceived as racism by non-whites. Every human being is ethnocentric; we all tend to be more comfortable with the kinds of people we grew up with ­ people with a shared religion, culture, language or skin color.

Unfortunately, we all tend to hire people like ourselves for the same reason. All of us - white, black, Hispanic, male, female, gay or straight - tend to unconsciously employ people like ourselves. Because white Americans are in the majority, and usually do the vast majority of hiring, whites often get preferential treatment. Racism in hiring arises not because those doing the hiring are consciously racist, but because they are unaware of the unconscious preference they have for people like them.

Affirmative action does not, as its opponents claim, discriminate against whites. Affirmative action is not a quota. Human resources officers in major corporations will tell you that affirmative action mainly involves putting pressure on those who hire to understand unconscious ethnocentric biases and how they affect our hiring practices when we interview applicants of a different background.

Americans of color often talk about institutional racism and whites think they are being unjustly accused. Institutional racism does not imply that those who are hiring are racist. Institutional racism means that racism is perpetuated because we allow ourselves to remain unaware of the biases each of us have about groups that are different from us.

We still have a long way to go and we need to stop feeling uncomfortable about race. Open talk about race is difficult and emotional, but it also leads to the kind of change that America has always been about. Our work is not done and we must continue this important conversation.

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, is the founder of Democracy for America, a grassroots organization that supports socially progressive and fiscally responsible political candidates.
Email Howard Dean at
Copyright 2004 Howard Dean, All Rights Reserved.
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