The Obama Era: A Post-racial Society?February 5, 2009 |
Despite the election of President Barack Obama, many longtime scholars whose work intertwines with race disagree that the country has reached a post-racial period.
WITH BARACK OBAMA ENSCONCED AS THE nation’s first Black president, plenty of voices in the national conversation are trumpeting America as a post-racial society — that race matters much less than it used to, that the boundaries of race have been overcome, that racism is no longer a big problem. “It’s smack down to think America is still all about racism,” says Dr. John McWhorter, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow. “Racism is not Black people’s main problem anymore. To say that is like saying the earth is flat.”
But longtime scholars whose life’s work intertwines with race disagree, even while applauding Obama’s presidency as a milestone. Race, they say, still matters. A lot.
To these scholars, claims of post-racialism hold mirage rather than merit because far too many significant, statistical disparities remain between Whites and minorities in educational attainment, income and net worth, career advancement and health care outcomes. Post-racialism is a goal not yet reached. Therefore, casting aside the role race plays in these inequities as well as race-conscious remedies such as diversity programs, they warn, doesn’t bode well for minorities still struggling.
While the term “post-race” has emerged in national discourse within the past few years, many scholars say the same subtext already lived in catch phrases like “color blind” more than a decade ago. Post-racialism parallels the same ideas that gained traction alongside other historical markers such as the first Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday in 1986.
“The idea of post-race is old wine in new bottles,” says Dr. Troy Duster, a New York University professor of sociology. McWhorter, for one, gladly takes a drink. “Post-racialism is a good direction to move in because if there’s some separation between Blacks and Whites, it’s as if some unpleasantness is going on, like one has his foot on the other’s neck.
“Are there racists? Yes. But not enough to keep a Black family out of the White House.”
Post-racialism has also birthed offshoots in a variety of hues. Richard Ford, Stanford University’s George E. Osborne professor of law, prefers describing America’s current divide as “racism without racists.”
In other words, many inequities are the legacy of long-ago marginalization. Race might not even be a factor in some injustices, Ford says, because the socalled offender is merely repeating actions originated by someone else.
When Racial Stereotypes Persist
In conversation, many academic skeptics of the post-race construct aren’t initially fazed by the fact it’s embraced and much discussed in workplaces, living rooms, the news media and the blogosphere. What’s different now and going forward, other scholars concede, is that the most vocal and influential pushers of post-racialism have its most daunting poster pinup in Obama.
For the foreseeable future, post-racialism will likely attract more believers than it will lose them. Efforts to dismantle or ban affirmative action, for instance, will likely accelerate. (See sidebar “Renewing the Fight Against Affirmative Action.”)
McWhorter predicts doubts over postracialism will taper off if Obama’s agenda and impact as a role model help reduce recidivism among Black men exiting prison and prod more Black fathers to help raise their children.
He also predicts today’s children might adopt post-racial mindsets more easily than adults. “They’ll see the Obamas on TV every day. That’s a powerful influence.” But Dr. Sandra Graham, a University of California, Los Angeles professor of psychological studies in education, considers the latter prediction “myopic.”
“There are so many competing TV images involving Blacks and violence that it will take much more than a figure in the White House for youth to become post-racial,” says Graham, who studies peer relations among youth in Los Angeles schools. It is the persistence of these competing images and racial stereotypes — and their impact on people of color — that cause some scholars to scoff at the notion of a post-racial America.
“We still carry those in our heads,” says Angela Harris, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor, referring to stereotypes. “Asian men are seen as smart with no social skills. Black men are seen as violent criminals. And people act and respond, based on those stereotypes.”
The mindset tying Black men to crime and violence might explain some public reactions to a fatal shooting last month of an unarmed, 22-year-old Black man at an Oakland, Calif., train station. Transit agency police detained the young man and others while investigating complaints of a fight early New Year’s Day. Passengers’ recorded video showed the man lying face down on concrete in the course of submitting to police. A White officer shot the man in the back, and has since been arrested and charged with murder. A week after the shooting, after passengers’ video had been widely broadcast on TV and the Internet, a local news station interviewed Dr. Howard Pinderhughes. A University of California, San Francisco associate professor of social and behavioral sciences, Pinderhughes’ research includes racial attitudes among youth. During the interview, Pinderhughes described what he saw on video “as an execution.” He was roundly condemned by viewers accusing him of bias because he’s Black and criticizing him “for saying ‘execution’ while the shooting was an incident under police investigation.” “Two people can watch the same tape, and while I see an execution, someone else sees only an incident under investigation. This country is so far from being post-racial,” Pinderhughes says. Racial Disparity in Education and Employment Some disparities, such as K-12 academic achievement, can’t be overcome without a racial lens and diversity-based solutions, scholars insist. Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, who holds the Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, says Black students, including middle- income Blacks, lag too far behind Whites not to use special outreach and affirmative action. For instance, among 25 school districts around the country examined by Ladson- Billings, high school graduation rates among Whites were higher than those of Blacks by an average 12 percent for a three-year period ending with 2007-08 academic year. Blacks passed third-grade, district-level math tests in 2005-06 at rates lower than Whites by an average 23 percent. The data come from the Minority Student Achievement Network, a coalition of the 25 districts, including suburban-urban schools in the Cambridge, Mass.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Phoenix areas. They boast more resources than their counterparts in neighboring cities and historically have had high academic achievement, Ladson-Billings says. “These are what’s considered good school districts. Even if you focus on socioeconomics, you can’t look at middle-income Blacks the same way you do Whites because Black wealth usually traces back only a generation, versus multiple generations for many middle- income Whites.”
“Race is still salient,” she adds.
Furthermore, she and others worry about the apparent resegregation of schools everywhere. A growing number of Blacks have little or no contact with White students, according to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/ Proyecto Derechos Civiles (CRP).
About 44 percent of today’s students are non-White, according to the CRP at UCLA. In 2006-07, 39 percent of Blacks attended schools where minorities made up at least 90 percent of total enrollment and Whites were barely 1 percent.
To address the resegregation, Graham of UCLA suggests creating more magnet schools that would recruit a diverse population. “K-12 is 20 years behind higher education in terms of promoting and encouraging diversity.”
Based on Graham’s studies of and surveys at 11 urban Los Angeles middle and high schools, fewer students reported themselves as victims of bullying at the schools with more diverse enrollments.
“They felt less lonely than the kids in less diverse schools,” she says. “They felt safe in bathrooms and other places where adults aren’t around much. If a child has regular contact with different races, that’s how he learns tolerance. That’s how you improve his attitude.” Racial disparities aren’t limited to education. Take jobs, for example.
Last November — when Obama was elected — the Black unemployment rate of 11 percent was almost twice that of Whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Disparities were ingrained before the current recession. In 2007, the Black unemployment rate of 8 percent was twice that of Whites.
“As long as Blacks are disproportionately represented in joblessness, there’s chronic economic subordination,” says Dr. William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who has written for more than 30 years about unemployment and poverty.
“Race is still a significant aspect of society. It will be a long time before we’re post-race.” A
Wilson predicts “post-race will fade like other silly fads. Post-race has made people like me explain to students, colleagues and others why it’s silly. This could be positive, because the conversations I’m having, at least they encourage people to rethink post-race.”
Still, Wilson and his contemporaries eagerly watch for how race plays into Obama’s social and economic agenda.
Ladson-Billings, for one, had publicly stated, long before Obama’s election, that she doesn’t believe true desegregation of schools as well as other changes in the racial divide are likely. But in a Diverse interview, she emphasized, “Just because something is near impossible to overcome doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing or trying or hoping for.”
“Two years ago, it was impossible to think of Obama as president,” Ladson-Billings says. “Let’s give him a nation to govern. Let’s engage ourselves on all levels.”
The Myth of a Post-racial America
By Christopher Metzler
Does the single act of electing President Obama thrust America from a “racial America” to a “post-racial America”? There are at least three reasons why this is a problematic conclusion. First, the election of President Obama is a sea change event, just like the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education. Brown also promised a “post-racial” America, and it did not deliver. This is because sea change events without attendant, sustained, substantive change end up being events, not durable change.
Previous sea change events have brought us closer to addressing race and racism; they have not eliminated the continuing significance of race in America and, by extension, the rest of the world. Since so many policymakers and others viewed these as events and did not take the opportunity to radically redesign the racial reality and lexicon, the promise remained unfulfilled.
Second, the American media still shape public opinion about race. If this election proved anything, it proved that the vast majority of the American media (who, by the way, are still predominantly White in a “post-racial” America) simply do not have the vocabulary or comfort to discuss or analyze race in any significant way. How could we be in a “post-racial” America when, throughout the campaign and since his election, the question of Obama’s race has not been discussed or analyzed but rather assigned a “post-racial” moniker?
Third, we live in a race-conscious, not a race-blind society. That is, the issue is not whether race exists; it is whether it matters. Thus, we have to ask ourselves what difference race makes to all of us. To date, the vast majority of the burden of discussing race has fallen on the shoulders of Blacks and other racial minorities. Whites need to discuss among themselves and when they are with us the continuing significance of race in a way that suspends judgment and encapsulates reality.
I realize Obama’s election represents both a continuation and departure on the question of race. We should use this sea change event to resolve the issue, not squander it as we have with so many others.
Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies and the author of the book The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a “Post-racial” America. This essay is an excerpt from his blog entry for Diverse. Read more at
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