Opinion and Forefront

MYERS: Our long conversation about race isn't over

May 21, 2011

Woodrow MyersRace is hard to talk about. It is even harder to write about. But race “colors” most major issues in the news: local, national and international, and it is still the fundamental issue that binds, separates, confuses and motivates us.

“Race” has a different set of meanings to different generations, within ethnic groups and to people from different parts of the world. The common threads are the judgments we make about one another on the basis of how we look and how we communicate.

It is absolutely clear to those of us who have confronted efforts to discriminate against us that virtually every major news story is directly or indirectly a story about race relations—the debate on funding of Planned Parenthood (it disproportionately serves poor, minority women) or redistricting our Legislature (concentrating or diluting the minority vote), or school funding and vouchers (resulting in disproportionate cuts to urban, heavily minority districts) or even five-class basketball (watering-down success and recognition of talented teams with high concentrations of minority students).

And it seems that each achievement of President Obama is accompanied by not-so-subtle efforts to divert or discredit. His name, his upbringing, his religion, his birth certificate—they are all proxies for “he is not one of us”, and they can all be bantered about without specifically addressing his race even though his race is the issue at the core.

So why is it that 50 years after the Freedom Rides began in the Deep South the issues surrounding race have become more acute? It is because every day the concept of “minority” is becoming less relevant.

“Minority” is rapidly evolving to “majority,” and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. In 2009, “minorities” accounted for almost 49 percent of births in the United States. Nationwide, 48 percent of kids under age 5 are minorities, while only 20 percent of people 65 and older are.

Non-Hispanic whites remain the majority in Indiana, making up nearly 82 percent of the population, but things are changing. Indiana’s population grew by over 400,000 in the past 10 years, and Hispanics accounted for 43 percent of the statewide increase, while non-Hispanic black population accounted for about 20 percent of the growth.

The black population in suburban counties around Indianapolis has increased substantially. But that does not mean the problems of the inner city have disappeared; they have not. Wishard Hospital, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, Indianapolis Public Schools and Indy Go all confront those problems every day.

So when the cry of Tea Party supporters is, “It’s our country—let’s take it back,” it is not a stretch to assume they want to do so because they fear the demographic shift now under way.

Honest conversations about race are hard to start. We bring our prejudices, our biases, our histories and our distrust with us as we begin them, and that makes it hard to move forward. Public-sector and private-sector leaders must be willing to talk about, dissect and then manage problems where racial differences are a significant component.

In health care, an entirely new field of study in “health care disparities” has been created in the past decade, and we’ve learned that even when economic differences are not the primary factor (such as patients within the Veterans Hospitals, or patients with the same health insurance), health care outcomes can differ substantially on the basis of race.

We know that some doctors and some nurses treat patients of different races differently and we know that cultural differences between patients and doctors can impact treatment decisions and effectiveness.

So as our demographics continue to evolve, we are at a crossroads. We can pretend that race no longer matters (it does). We can pretend that society is colorblind (it isn’t). Or we can summon the courage to face the fact that we have much more work to do in managing the consequences of our differences.•

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Myers is a former chief medical officer for WellPoint Inc. and served as health commissioner for Indiana and New York City. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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