Dean draws on experiences to confront racism

January 04, 2004|By Derrick Z. Jackson

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Howard Dean said, "I'm trying to gently call out the white population." His genteel example was a story he tells to voters about how his chief of staff as governor of Vermont was always a woman. After two or three years, Dr. Dean noticed that she had a "matriarchy" in the office. When the chief of staff was going to hire a new person, Dr. Dean said, he told her, "'I notice we have a gender imbalance in the office, and I wonder if you could find a man.' She said it's really hard to find a qualified man. I got everybody laughing about that."

That is Dr. Dean's icebreaker to get audiences to understand institutional racism. "The punch line of the story that it's so hard to find a qualified man is everybody does it. Everybody tends to hire people like themselves. And I get them all nodding, including the African-Americans in the audience."

He went on to talk about a consultant who runs political campaigns in Washington. The consultant was kept on to hire the staff for one of his candidates who won a city council race. "In the first staff meeting before the guy took office, they looked around and said, `Uh-oh.' Everyone was male, and everyone was African-American."

This was a softer Dean than the one excoriated by his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination for saying he wanted to appeal to white guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. For all the fire of that moment, Dr. Dean said the Democrats cannot run away from a blunt, if gently blunt, discussion about race.

"Dealing with race is about educating white folks," Dr. Dean said in an interview last week on a campaign swing through the first primary state where black voters will have a major impact. "Not because white people are worse than black people about race, but because whites are in the majority, and therefore the behavior of whites has a much bigger influence on hiring practices and so forth."

In recent presidential campaigns, the Democrats have struggled to find a message that attracts swing white voters and loyal voters of color at the same time.

The last Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, who was hugely popular with black voters, started a national discussion on race but abandoned it during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Mr. Clinton also never challenged Republican-inspired laws that had a disastrous impact on young blacks and Latinos, such as mandatory sentencing and much harsher jail terms for possession of crack cocaine than for powdered cocaine.

Dr. Dean would not discuss the Clinton era. He did say that as president, he would try to end disproportionate drug sentencing and mandatory sentencing. He said he is a firm supporter of affirmative action. He said that perhaps preferential points could be given to companies seeking federal contracts who can demonstrate diversity.

Dr. Dean said proactive measures are still necessary to counteract the unconscious biases confirmed by many studies showing that job discrimination continues to be a major problem. "One generation does not make up for 15 generations of slavery and Jim Crow," he said.

Dr. Dean said his own education about unconscious racism began at Yale, from which he graduated in 1971. One of his roommates became a leader in the black student alliance, which resulted in frequent, large gatherings of black men in his dorm room. At one of these gatherings, Dr. Dean said, "I suddenly realized I was the only white person in the room, and literally the hair went up on the back of my neck. 'Cause I thought, what if it was always like this? What if everywhere in your world you were the only white person and everyone else was black? For one instant I had some tiny inkling what it was like to be black in America."

Now Dr. Dean wants to get white Americans to ask those same questions without raising the hair on their necks. If he succeeds, that would really turn the tables on America's most difficult subject.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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