Up until recently, I never gave this a thought. Most of the books I've been reading lately are in the fantasy or science fiction genres and race doesn't seem to be an issue -- at least with the authors I read. Then I started noticing things. Cover art that didn't match the descriptions of the characters purportedly described being the biggest.
How important is it that the artwork on the cover match what goes on in the book? If the book describes a stately, beautiful woman of African descent, and the cover shows a generic blue-eyed blonde who is obviously Caucasian, I have to wonder: Whose idea was it to 'whitewash' the character? The artist? Or maybe the publisher? I have to doubt that it would be the author -- especially since many of them have little or no say about the cover art.
In a perfect world, the color of one's skin shouldn't matter. But we don't live in a perfect world. I am guessing that decisions are made regarding the race of the people depicted on the cover purely for monetary reasons. Which makes absolutely no sense to me at all. I would think that there would be more controversy over a cover depicting a young Caucasian girl when the book was about a young African girl. I for one would be supremely disappointed in the choices that led to that decision.
At the end of it, race does matter. But, and this is important I think, CAN a white author write a credible African character? I mean without the character coming across as a caricature? The reverse questions applies as well. I doubt very much that I could write a credible character who is anything but caucasian! I am being as honest as I can. All I know about cultures other than my own are what I've observed and what I have read about. This makes me less than credible if I were to write about cultures other than my own. As much as I know that race matters, I think it is doing no one all that much good to put a few tokens in a story and say "Look, I have a mixed-race story."
I don't know what the answer is, or if there is a good one. I do know that there needs to be more honesty on the part of publishers to depict the books they sell in the correct light. To "whitewash" a book to simply sell it is wrong.