Reinforcing the wrong distinctions

Published 10:17 pm Monday, December 15, 2014

Is there any hope that America will ever be a colorblind nation?

It’s a question that many never would have imagined would continue to be so perplexing nearly 15 years into the 21st century, but it’s one whose answer seems distressingly and increasingly negative with each passing day of galvanizing and divisive news.

Ferguson. Loosies. Hands up, don’t shoot. These are the new touchstones of the national conversation on race. With the nation’s first black president on the down slope of his second term in office, instead of the racial reconciliation many had expected and hoped for, America seems to be tearing itself apart at the seam that separates black from white.

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Even in Suffolk, where folks of both races prided themselves on the relative peacefulness of the city’s Civil Rights-era integration, there are indications that the patchwork is beginning to fray. A meeting last week of a group of black business owners and activists is a symptom of the problem.

About two dozen people — including just one white person, Suffolk News-Herald news editor Tracy Agnew — met at N’Dulge Eclectic Soul Cuisine on Thursday to consider ways the black business community can pursue unity. The meeting was promoted via social media, and organizer Domenick Epps said Friday that anyone would have been welcome to attend. But the invitations were explicit in their focus on black participants, and the group’s discussion was similarly exclusive. Among the suggestions put forward was the initiation of an effort to start a Black Chamber of Commerce or business alliance in Suffolk.

On Friday, Epps described the design and direction of the meeting as a “good starting point.” But it’s hard to see how starting from a position of exclusivity could ever result in an inclusive, colorblind social environment.

Even the group’s discussion of the need for black business mentors for black youths raises some troubling questions. For instance, can black teens learn good life lessons only from black adults? Turning the question around reveals the problem: Can young white kids learn only from white adults?

Do black business owners face different hardships than white business owners? Maybe. But it seems likely in an open, capitalistic society that all business owners face similar problems: supply and demand, labor costs, proper health care and training for workers and so on.

Epps and the others who attended Thursday’s meeting have an understandable and laudable desire to improve the business conditions for black retailers, service providers, restaurateurs and professionals in Suffolk and to improve the opportunities enjoyed by young black people entering the workforce.

What remains to be seen, however, is how reinforcing distinctions based on something as incidental to commerce as the color of one’s skin will ever help to achieve those goals or ever lead to the greater and admirable goal of a colorblind nation.