Washington 'power couple' takes on race
William and Janet Cohen want to use their experience as a mixed-race couple to start an open discussion on race in America.
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When people say they are going to vote for a minority candidate, such as Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, they actually do, he says. Also, more Americans are responding "yes" to such questions as: Do you live within a block of someone who is African-American or have you attended a dinner party with someone who is African-American?Skip to next paragraph
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The Cohens note that the fact that they could be married is a sign of progress that the country has made on racial reconciliation. But they add that it took a Supreme Court decision as recent as 1967 to make that possible. "Just seven years before we met it would have been illegal for us to have been married in many parts of this country," says William Cohen.
Moreover, high-profile African American success stories may also fuel a false sense that the need for racial reconciliation is ebbing. The Cohens note comments they hear such as: "Why are the blacks angry? Why is there such a sense of rage? I'm not responsible. I've lived a good life. I'm a moral person. As for slavery: That's 300 years ago. We've had 30 years of affirmative action – everything is equal now. You've got a black man running for president, you've got Condi Rice, you've got Colin Powell, you've got Oprah, so what's your problem?"
"The problem is that there are a very few who have made it to the top and they are completely separated from what is the reality on the ground for the vast majority of black people who will not have that chance," Mr. Cohen adds.
A recent Gallup Poll shows significant gaps persist in how black and white Americans understand race relations. When pollsters in 1963 first began asking the question, "Do you think that relations between whites and blacks will always be a problem?" some 26 percent of black respondents, compared with 44 percent of whites, said yes. In a poll last month, white Americans were more optimistic on the prospects for racial reconciliation: Fifty-seven percent of blacks expected that race relations would always be a problem, compared with 45 percent of whites.
"There's a big gulf between how blacks and whites look at the state of society today," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll in Princeton, N.J. Whites are much more positive than blacks in assessing how groups are treated in society today. Sixty-three percent of whites say that they are satisfied with the ways blacks are treated, compared with 35 percent of blacks.
A key objective of the conference is to help explain the historical experiences or memories that inform such a range of views. "For me, reconciliation means illumination – to reach a state of acknowledgement. It's about understanding how we got to where we are," says William Cohen.