We the People: Polarization of Race in America

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- An image of America in 2017 is divided by race. For some, it's like history has been forgotten and the nation hasn't learned from its past.

"Unfortunately, the political divide has created, I want to say, almost regurgitated the issues of our racial differences," Wes Pratt said.

Pratt is assistant to the president and chief diversity officer at Missouri State University. He says race is something the country hasn't dealt with adequately.

"We got unfinished business of addressing the issues of race," Pratt said.

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, the number of Americans who say racism is a "big problem" is the highest it has been in more than ten years.

That number has about doubled since 2011, from 28 to 58 percent.

The study says 81 percent of blacks say racism is a big problem, compared with about 52 percent of whites.

A 2016 survey shows most Americans believe individual racism is a bigger problem than institutional racism.

Pratt believes the opposite.

"Institutional racism has caused the racial divide," Pratt said.

And says it's an issue deeply rooted in the country's history.

"There were laws that were made to justify slavery," Pratt said. "You had to legislate to get people the right to vote. The right not to be discriminated against."

An unsolved issue that rises back to the surface in different ways: one example is police-community relations.

"The police has been used to enforce and reinforce the laws that were made that were racist in nature," Pratt said.

But although movements like Black Lives Matter have brought attention to some struggles in black communities, race in America is not only a black and white issue.

"They've become more active in articulating those things whereas Latinos.. we are a lot more passive," Juan Meraz, assistant vice president for Diversity and Inclusion at MSU, said.

Latinos are the second-fastest-growing group in the U.S. after Asians.

Yet, many stereotypes still exist.

"Everybody thinks, oh you're Mexican, but there's actually 22 countries where people of Latino origin come from," Meraz said.

Meraz said moving to the Ozarks from New Mexico back in the 80s was a bit of a culture shock.

"I went to a grocery store and the gentleman came up and he asked me: what breed are you?" Meraz said.

He says back then there were only 4 Latinos on campus. Today, 780 students and staff members register as Latino.

According to the 2010 census, in Greene County, the Latino population is 3.6 percent, or, a little over 10,000.  

"I've never seen 10,000 but they are out there," Meraz said.

However, Latinos can be of any race.

"We have a lot of diversity in our Latino population and part of it is educating our own people," Meraz said.

The African American population in Greene County is 3.3 percent.

"To me, there is more diversity than there was when I was a kid growing up here when I was in the public school system," Pratt said.

In Springfield today, about 25 percent of the student population in the public school district is racially diverse.

That might not sound like a large number, but Pratt says the city has come a long way.

"Used to be walking down the street and be called names, the n-word and things like that, unfortunately, that still happens," Pratt said.

Both Pratt and Meraz are watching Springfield's population slowly become more diverse.

"Despite what's going on nationally, despite anti-immigrant sentiment, despite Charlottesville, despite Ferguson, we are going to work to improve our community and that to me is what is exciting about Springfield," Pratt said.

"People tend to say 'oh we're different this and this and this.' But look at all the similarities, and that builds a lot of bridges," Meraz said.

A good place to start is opening up to a courageous conversation.

"In the right tone... how do you pose that question? You say, oh, you have a beautiful accent, where are you from? As opposed to saying what breed are you?" Meraz said.

Knowing that sometimes having a good conversation, doesn't involve speaking.

"It's the critical piece we have to engage and have to be willing to sit down and listen," Pratt said. "You got to be able to listen. And most folks don't listen,"

Because changing how we deal with racial issues as a country will start with our actions with those around us.

"This situation now, people say 'well, this is not America,'" Pratt said. "Yes, it is. Yes, it is. The question becomes what are you now going to do about it?"

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