Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Race Card Project

(Michele Norris, from

Michele Norris, host and special correspondent for National Public Radio, took time out from cataloging tens of thousands of six-word responses to the Race Card Project to speak at Coe College tonight. Her talk described her own reluctant movement into journalism about race, as well as a relative few of the responses the Race Card Project has generated.

The cleverly-titled project began in the middle years of the last decade, as she and colleagues at NPR sought to tap into what they saw as a historic moment, indicated by the Obama presidential campaign, the sudden surge in use of the word "post-racial," and the inexorable demographic shift of the U.S. away from being a majority-white country. She stumbled onto postcards as a means of facilitating what she'd expected to be difficult and scary conversations about race in America. On the cards she asks people to "express your thoughts about RACE and ethnicity in just SIX WORDS." The first trickle of cards she got back became a flood, then shifted onto social media where stories eventually came from all 50 states, 52 foreign countries, and American troops abroad in places like Afghanistan. She has archived 38,000 of the responses, with as many more waiting.

As she read a medley of responses to us, they were a mix of pain, guilt, anger, pride, and wishes for the future. That's a pretty representative sample of the racial experience in America. Her two favorites, she said, were
Underneath, we all taste like chicken
Total non-issue when the aliens arrive. 
Sometimes the six-word responses were accompanied by essays that included memories of events like the day Martin Luther King was murdered "that aren't in the history books." Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there remains much to be acknowledged, and more if we can do it.

In writing this blog for nearly a year, I have treated the need to accommodate diversity as one of the core challenges of building community in 21st century America, though maybe not as central as economic opportunity. But as inclined as I might be to think that issues of class transcend race, once again, as happened last April, I am confronted by the fact that race simply will not go away. Some day, soon I hope, we will live comfortably together in a place where races and ethnicities no longer divide us, but are complementary, flavorful seasonings in our cosmopolitan salad. There are a lot of conversations that must happen between now and then, though, a lot of history to be acknowledged. Quite of bit of it is going to be awkward. I am willing to endure whatever desert I must to get to the promised land, and Norris's project has provided a hopeful start to the process.

"The Race Card Project" is at

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