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When talking about race

Each year Black History Month brings attempts to have what pundits call a "national conversation about race." If only we could get our beliefs and our conversations about race on the right track, the idea seems to be, then the rest will follow.

Each year Black History Month brings attempts to have what pundits call a "national conversation about race." If only we could get our beliefs and our conversations about race on the right track, the idea seems to be, then the rest will follow.

It would be nice if that were so. But it's not.

To be sure, the emphasis on conversations about race - and on changing ideas - has intuitive appeal. As social scientists often remind us, racial identities are constructs. There is no biological fact of race that undergirds our beliefs about it. If race is something we create and re-create, one might think, then perhaps challenging racial injustice is a simple matter of changing what people believe and say about race.

But think back to the middle decades of the 20th century, when a national conversation about race did alter dominant beliefs. It was in the 1940s that scientists in the United States and elsewhere dismantled the 19th-century understanding of race as biological difference. It was in that same period that the strong association of racism with Nazism drove many white Americans to reject racial hierarchy as morally repugnant.

These changes did not radically alter how race was practiced in the United States, though, because when people use ideas and language to construct identities, they don't stop there. They also institutionalize the identities they create, building them into laws and rules and policies.

Think of the Federal Housing Administration, established in the mid-1930s, which institutionalized then-dominant racial ideas by making racial segregation a condition for receiving government-backed mortgages. Now imagine a white home buyer at mid-century who has been persuaded by the new moral and scientific critiques of old racial stories. He still needs to act as if he believes the old stories - he needs to buy a house in a racially segregated neighborhood - if he wants to qualify for a state-insured loan.

People also materialize the identities they construct. They build them into material forms like the so-called "black ghettoes" created in the early decades of the 20th century, or like racially exclusive suburban enclaves. Because we experience material forms with our bodies, we can learn the racial identities built into them without thinking about it.

Think of the sense of being "out of place" you might experience when you inhabit the "wrong" racialized space: a club or a school or a neighborhood socially marked as belonging to a different race than yours. When you feel out of place, you learn and relearn your racial identity, but not through ideas, and not through words. You learn with your body. Change your beliefs, and you still can feel the lessons taught by racialized space.

To be sure, those who call for a national conversation about race are not entirely wrong. We do need better beliefs and ideas, and we need a more thoughtful discourse, if we hope to change how we act. But change requires a very specific type of conversation: namely, one that directs us to make new institutions and to remake our material world.

Consider your neighborhood, your municipality, and the metropolitan area in which you live. Think of their schools, transportation systems, and patterns of land use.

Local control over taxation, public services, and land use does much work in maintaining racial hierarchy. For example, the local property tax system that produces what Jonathan Kozol famously called "savage inequalities" does at least as much work in perpetuating racial inequality in education as do explicitly racist ideas and attitudes. That's why many policy experts and activists recommend centralizing political power to the metropolitan, or even to the regional, level.

A national conversation among residents of central cities, inner-ring suburbs, and other local communities that have relatively weak tax bases could focus on overlapping interests in centralizing important aspects of governance. It could focus on challenging the practice of low-density zoning in wealthy suburbs, which helps perpetuate socio-economic and racial segregation.

Such conversations, even if not "about race," could significantly change the ways we live and practice racial identities. So could conversations that prompt us to change the physical spaces of our cities and suburbs, perhaps by helping architects and planners design projects differently than they otherwise would, or by encouraging the construction of affordable housing alongside market-rate units.

Changing institutions and physical spaces is crucially important. To recognize and honor black history in the United States, we must remember that no conversation, by itself, changes racial injustice.