THE BLOG
01/16/2015 02:27 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Last Year, America Discovered Race. Now What?

2014 was the year the U.S. discovered that race is still an issue in this allegedly "color-blind" society, among other things. It's become so obvious that it even got noticed during last Sunday's Golden Globe Awards, when co-host Tina Fey got one of the biggest laughs of the night by noting that "the movie Selma is about the American civil rights movement -- that totally worked and now everything's fine."

We're finally starting to notice that everything is not fine.

Just to speak the names of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice says more about pain and injustice than we should ever need to say, but these tragedies represent just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Despite some recent gestures toward penal reform, the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of our blacks than apartheid South Africa did. And when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dared to say that he felt the need to counsel his mixed-race son to be extra careful in encounters with the police, NYPD officers responded with repeated shows of blatant disrespect.

Although the unemployment rate is lower today than in recent years, that positive statistic masks some grim trends. Job growth has been fueled in part by some workers trading good-paying jobs lost during the recession for lower-paying positions that are all they can find today.

This has no doubt contributed to our ongoing racial wealth gap, which remains stubbornly entrenched. For every dollar of wealth a white family has, the median Asian family has about 81 cents (a figure that masks pockets of real poverty within some Asian communities), the median Latino family has 7 cents and the median black family has less than 6 cents.

Questions of race also hit the NBA, where league officials struggled to clean up the mess created by the offensive comments of Donald Sterling, who owned the L.A. Clippers.

And questions of race and diversity finally caught the attention of Silicon Valley, where women, blacks and Latinos continue to make up a shockingly small percentage of the workforce, particularly in tech-related positions, management and the executive suite. We finally got a taste of what's really going on when Laszlo Bock, Google's S.V.P. of People Operations, told Gwen Ifill on the PBS NewsHour, "We like people who are like us, who watch the same shows, who like the same food, who have the same backgrounds. So we bring this unconscious bias to everything we do."

At least he was honest about it. And being honest about these unconscious biases is an essential first step toward remedying them.

If the recent controversies around police shootings have taught us anything, it's that we can't be afraid to tackle the racial and ethnic implications of America's problems -- or their solutions.

Happily, I see glimmers of hope. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, more Americans of all demographic groups now have health insurance. And while black and Latino uninsured rates remain far higher than whites', the gap is narrowing. From the end of 2013 to the end of 2014, the overall uninsured rate dropped by 4.2 percentage points, while the uninsured rate for Latinos dropped by 6.3 points and the uninsured rate for African Americans dropped a full seven points. That very happy news deserves more attention than it's gotten.

I'm glad to say that my own state of California has led the way in aggressively and effectively implementing Obamacare, dropping our uninsured rate by half in the first year. Because health is so important to everything we do, this sort of progress will impact the racial wealth gap over time.

So will something else my state is doing. While there's been some national news coverage of California's laws to combat climate change and promote clean energy, there's more to these policies than most people know. An important feature of California's climate law guarantees that a quarter of carbon fees collected from industrial polluters will go to projects that uplift disadvantaged communities -- cutting pollution, promoting clean energy, helping consumers, and bringing jobs and investment to neighborhoods that need both, often neighborhoods populated by people of color that for too long were used as toxic dumping grounds.

These positive models point the way. They can lead us away from the bad old days of "redlining" -- deliberate disinvestment from communities of color -- to what we call "greenlining": a conscious effort to bring opportunity, investment and justice to those long-ignored communities. The question for America in 2015 is: Do we have the will to do it?