02/01/2013 06:50 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Race and Obama's Second Term -- Part I

One of the most common questions I get -- frequently turning up in comments here on The Huffington Post -- is, "Why do you keep talking about race?"

Personally, I'd say a better question is, "Why does America try so hard not to talk about race?" As our first and only nonwhite president begins his second term, we might want to think about that, since issues with a strong racial component will be on his plate whether anyone likes it or not.

The people who object to discussing race and ethnicity usually offer reasoning something like this: "In America, race isn't supposed to matter. We're all equal, right? Even bringing up this subject is divisive. Talking about race goes against the effort to treat everyone the same."

Except, it doesn't.

If the playing field were level, the "don't mention race" argument might make some sense. But for people of color, the playing field has never been level. Discrimination didn't magically disappear when civil rights laws were passed, and its lingering effects remain a major factor in American life -- one we're uncomfortable talking about.

As this illustration shows better than I can describe, if people start out in unequal situations, treating them equally doesn't create justice or fairness. It simply perpetuates inequality.

We shouldn't forget that much of that unlevel playing field was the result of deliberate government policy. From the 1930s to the 1960s, for example, the U.S. Federal Housing Administration actively promoted racial segregation and redlining.

The consequences of such policies still linger: According to the U.S. Census, for every dollar of wealth a white family has, the median Asian family has 63 cents, the median Latino family has seven cents, and the median African American family has less than a nickel.

That's just not sustainable. And in a nation where people of color will be the majority before mid-century, it's something we have to be willing to discuss. You can't fix a problem without first looking at it and trying to understand it.

So what does this mean for President Obama's second term? It means that to leave a legacy of real progress, the administration will have to tackle head-on issues that bring up uncomfortable racial and ethnic discussions.

We're already seeing this in the long-overdue push for immigration reform. How many times in the last two weeks have you heard politicians tout the need to "secure the border"? I'm pretty sure they don't mean the Canadian border. And this discussion consistently ignores the fact that one million of our undocumented population came from Asia -- meaning they arrived through airports. Does Congress want to build an electrified fence around LAX?

Meanwhile, there is much still to be done in repairing the wreckage of the financial meltdown that greeted President Obama as he took office. The pace of foreclosures has slowed, but the loss of wealth was crushing in communities of color. The estimated $5.6 trillion in equity lost by 2011 came disproportionately from families of color. Asians, Latinos and African Americans all experienced higher foreclosure rates than whites -- nearly double in the case of Latinos and African Americans.

And this wasn't just coincidence. Several financial institutions have paid large settlements for violating fair housing laws by steering African-Americans and Latinos into high-cost subprime loans when similarly qualified white borrowers received lower-cost prime loans.

Happily, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has done much to curb the excesses and shady practices that fueled the subprime bubble. But new obstacles threaten to block the path to homeownership, including competition from investors scooping up affordable properties and regulations that may make it harder to get an affordable loan.

What's missing so far is a proactive agenda that can help devastated communities recover the wealth they've lost and reopen doors to responsible homeownership. There are ways to do this -- ways that don't involve returning to the bad days of trick mortgages misleadingly sold to people who couldn't afford them. And there are other concrete steps the government can take to bring jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities to communities that urgently need them.

These steps -- which I'll outline in detail next time -- should form a key part of the agenda the president will lay out in his State of the Union address. If America is to have a return to truly broad-based prosperity, there is no choice.