06/18/2010 12:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Racism, Sexism and Disparities, Oh My!

I read in disbelief recently about Kentucky's senate nominee Rand Paul's inflammatory comments rebuking the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul said parts of the Act are an "unacceptable intrusion" into business operations by the federal government. His backpedaling aside, and his later apologetic statement of support for the Civil Rights Act, Rand represents a contingent of America that just wishes it didn't have to deal with such things as inequity and inequality.

But deal we must. There are real disparities in our world -- and right here in Chicago. A colleague of mine recounted a conversation from a graduate international business class, wherein a classmate asked the professor if racism in America wasn't as bad as it used to be, that it wasn't as bad as some of the violent racist incidents occurring overseas they just discussed in class. The professor, a woman of color, hesitated. She said she might have agreed that this was true several years ago, but no, not now. While perhaps the violence that was much more prevalent several decades ago is now more muted, there is still violence today and worse yet: the more insidious, non-violent forms of racism still remain strong and deeply embedded in our society.

It is these other forms of institutional and systemic racism -- and sexism -- that will be our more difficult foe to eradicate. While these foes may not be as violent as they have been in our inglorious past, we must now counter them in their current incarnations. Both racism and sexism have moved from playing out overtly in our society to playing out in covert and institutionalized ways. They still exist. They're still here. And their ongoing and unabated presence is documented regularly for all of us to see. Perhaps one organization releases a report on health disparities. Another organization releases still another report regarding wage equity, documenting how many cents on the dollar a white woman makes on a white man's dollar, and spells out further the still lesser amounts for African American women and Latinas. These disparities follow us around every single day. It's these disparities in health, pay, education, and professional attainment where racism and sexism continue to live on, strong and proud.

The inability on the part of our political and legislative leaders to recognize and understand these institutional forms of racism and sexism is scary. It worries me. As we bear down on the 2042 minority majority, how can we know where we're going if we can't agree about where we've been?

On the other hand, sometimes I appreciate when our leaders stray from political correctness and say what they really think. It's a refreshing glimpse into our real world of this ongoing racism and sexism. It gives us a reality check to know we're certainly not yet post-racial, and our women and girls aren't yet fully empowered to live their lives without limitations.

It's also a moment to realize this journey toward equity is not just on the shoulders of our politicians. We all need to be aware. We also need to take action. We need informed and agitated masses to keep pushing us toward a world of equity and parity, to keep pushing our politicians toward what's right and good, and to keep all of us honest regarding the world we live in and aware of a world with this many disparities is not quite right.

Agitated masses play a crucial and interesting role in expanding our social consciousness. They push the envelope when no one even feels like writing the letter. But it's a message we need to hear. When the envelope is pushed and it stretches all of us beyond our comfort zones, it creates a new middle ground of clarity and consensus -- clarity and consensus around taking action on issues of disparities that are already fact. We need the envelope pushed so we can arrive at a new and level ground for all of us.

So, yes, we need civil rights movements. We need social movements. Most importantly, we need our lovely agitated masses to maintain clarity on the facts, on pushing for what will no longer be tolerated. Women and girls deserve better. We all deserve better. I encourage each and every one of us to step back, read about the real facts in upcoming blog posts, and feel righteous in her or his right to push the damn envelope.