By Dr. Christopher J. Metzler
The conversations about race and its significance in America are ongoing. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has intensified the conversation. Some claim that his election is proof that race no longer matters (although a majority of whites voted for McCain), others claim that his election is proof that we are living in a “post-racial” America (although there has been an increase in reported hate crimes since his election), while others claim that his election without more is not enough to end America’s complex and destructive relationship with race. To be sure, race is a social construction. In the American context, race has been used as a tool by slave masters to justify the enslavement of blacks by suggesting that we are other than human and thus deserve to be enslaved. In other words, while all humans are created equal, we were not human and thus not equal. Race was also used by the Courts of the United States to continue enslavement of blacks when the courts ruled, for example, that we had no rights that the white man was bound to respect. In modern day America, race is used as a tool by many individuals and institutions to relegate blacks and other recognizable minorities to the fringes of society. Modern day tools include racial profiling by law enforcement, prosecutors removing potential jurors from serving on juries because of race, and CNN and D.L. Hughley colluding to produce a television show rife with racist subtext. Thus, I am of the opinion that Obama’s election in and of itself does not signal either the end of racism or the ushering in of a “post-racial” America.
Conversations about race are also taking place all across the world. Recently, I facilitated a discussion about race in France with members of the French media and academics in Paris. They reported that France is having discussions about diversity and race. Race is not discussed, as it is in America, because there is a general impression that to do so would focus on differences. That is, for the French, one should be French first. I challenged them, however, to think about the many black Africans and others who have immigrated to France, who speak the language and who to the casual observer, are French. However, who are followed around in the stores when shopping (as in America), who suffer discrimination when seeking employment (as in America) and are often on the fringes of the mainstream society (as in America). The conversation in France and in so much of Europe about race is very much like the conversation in America whether people wish to admit it or not. Like in America, it risks being denigrated into a politically correct discourse (as it has in America) thus relegating it into the proverbial intellectual dustbin.
We also had discussions about affirmative action. Some argued that affirmative action has outlived its usefulness in America and thus should be eliminated. One journalist asked about the efforts by Ward Connerly to eliminated affirmative action and its success in some states. Others discussed efforts in France in put affirmative action in place. These efforts are complicated by the fact that French law does not allow for and, in fact, prohibits the collection of racial data. Some argued then that the solution would be putting in place quotas that would reserve places for blacks and others in university, government etc.
I suggested that quotas simply do not address the issue. In fact, they become a ceiling rather than a floor. Moreover, they simply do not lead to the kind of change in a larger society that addresses racial policy and the eradication of racism at all societal levels. As to Connerly’s efforts, I explained his tactic to have the state initiatives passed by disguising them as “civil rights” efforts, as well as how he has enriched himself personally by working to undo affirmative action.
A “post-racial” America
Much of the conversation focused on whether the single act of electing President Obama thrust America from a “racial America” to a “post-racial” America. This is a conversation that is occurring both inside and outside of America. I explained 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. Keep in mind that on the issue of race, we have had several sea change events, among them: the founding of the NAACP, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order 11246 (Affirmative Action) and others. All of these 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 predominately 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? If the media were competent to analyze race, they would have been able to put Obama’s election in the racial context that it finds itself for better or worse. Rather, they have chosen to avoid the issue, discuss it marginally or simply resort to calling it a “post-racial” election. Most notable was the discussion of the so-called “Bradley effect” during the election. The vast majority of the media over simplified and over analyzed it, and when Obama won, simply said, ‘well its proof that racism is dead.’ Missing from the discourse are questions of what role, if any, race played in the election, how America would view a black first lady, whether and how the conversation of race will change in the media, the complexion of the American punditry and gaggling class that is the American media. For an example of the overly simplistic “post-racial” approach, see “He’s not Black” by Marie Arana in The Washington Post.
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 like for us to tell them what our experience with race and racism has been and then try to convince us that they are not racists. Enough already! 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.
As we closed the conversation, I realized that 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 some many others.
Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is 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.