Acceptance and Denial

When I wrote last week about the inequities confronting African-Americans in the IT workforce and cited the election of our first African-American president as a bright sign of hope for the future, I knew full well what was in store. There would be many readers who would challenge the notion that skin color is still an issue in a country that has matured enough to elect a black president.

Reader comments about that column and a related blog post tended to dismiss the idea that race still matters; they claim it's an anachronism perpetuated by the self-serving media.

"What people should start writing about is how the USA can now drop this stigma of being a racist country and start becoming colorblind," one reader wrote. "Until the media stops using skin color to get ratings, skin color will always be a factor in what people think of others."

"We elected a black president. So what? The media are the ones making a big deal about race, not the general public," another reader chimed in. "The media are the ones dividing people by race. If everyone wants equality, we need to stop making race an issue."

"Why bring race or creed into this magazine?" asked another. "I suppose this is a sad indicator that we live in times where it is popular and will gain readership if the race card is played in some way."

The "race card" I played was reporting on continued compensation inequities as reflected in the 2008 Computerworld IT Salary Survey. I noted that there had been no improvement since last year, when African-Americans made up just 3% of the IT workforce, with their compensation hovering at about 14% less than that of their white counterparts.

Contending that we no longer need to acknowledge or address such inequities because we have elected an African-American to the presidency is disturbingly, dangerously myopic. Yet that's what's happening. One reader chided me for the "disconnect" in my column: "So, Americans are willing to elect an African American to the highest office in the nation," he wrote, "but you imply that African Americans fare worse in the IT workplace because of discrimination."

The election appears to be blinding many to the fact that racism isn't only about overt, malicious discrimination. Many of us who have never experienced it find it too easy to dismiss as an excusatory myth or a media agenda item.

It's not difficult to gain the insight and understanding it takes to appreciate what's going on here. All you have to do is listen. Listen, for example, to the reader who identified himself as a black man with 24 years of IT experience.

"I am happy that a black man has become president. This nation is truly changing," he wrote. "However, look around the country and you will see by actions and words that racism still exists. . . . I really wish that it was a subject that did not still need to be discussed, but reality says it does. Let's stop trying to brush it under the rug and hope that it magically goes away."

No, we're not a nation of haters anymore, and we've proved to ourselves and to the world that we understand that a person can be black and still be worthy of election to the presidency. But we can't allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that that understanding is equivalent to the demise of racism.

Skin color does matter. Most of us wish it didn't, but it does. If skin color didn't matter, then the bonds of trust between the races would be equivalent to the bonds of trust within each race. They are not. Until they are, there will continue to be disparities like the ones we reported with respect to IT salaries. And until they are, colorblindness will have much more to do with denial than with acceptance.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

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