Autumn 2009: Coda

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Postracial? Really?

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By Andra Gillespie

During last year’s presidential primary election season, an academic friend of mine openly worried that the election of Barack Obama would put scholars like him and me out of business. We both study race (I look at campaigns; he looks at labor), and he feared that the election of an African American man would convince some that the study of racial inequality was irrelevant.

Last fall, journalists coined the term “postracial” to characterize the America over which Barack Obama would presumably preside. No one really defined “postracial,” but in the context of other terms such as “postfeminist” and “postpartisan,” the term implied an America where racial differences were no longer meaningful. It seemed as though those using the term hoped that the election of a black man to the White House—especially one who did not wear his race on his sleeve—would be proof positive that Americans did not see color anymore. In many ways, the term postracial reflected the aspiration to move beyond our virulently racist past by never having to discuss the horrors of slavery and segregation again. But the events of the past few months demonstrate the continued salience of race. We have witnessed our inability—or refusal—to effectively engage the issue, even in the Age of Obama.

In the bad old days of Jim Crow, prejudice was easy to spot, at least we thought. A bigot was white and Southern. He held arcane views about blacks and other groups, and peppered his language with racial epithets. His worst fears included sharing a lunch counter or his child (particularly his daughter) with a black person. In the post–civil rights era, though, it is harder to spot a bigot. They do not all live in the South (they never did). They are not all white. Most know better than to use racial slurs. And most have at least one acquaintance of a different race.

Still, our multicultural existence does not absolve people of prejudice. A 2008 Stanford University/Associate Press poll found that 40 percent of whites harbor at least one stereotypical attitude against blacks. Race is often the subtext of many national debates, even when we refuse to discuss it. This continued sensitivity around racial issues demonstrates how important it is that we continue to study and discuss the impact of racism and prejudice on every aspect of American life, from health outcomes to employment to political behavior. Our refusal to engage in a meaningful dialogue about race contributes to perpetual divisions.

This summer, a CNN poll showed that blacks sided with Skip Gates, the Harvard professor arrested at his home after someone called the police for a suspected robbery at his house. Whites, in contrast, sided with Jim Crowley, the arresting officer who was accused of racial profiling. When Barack Obama publicly chastised the Cambridge Police Department, the Pew Research Center showed that his approval rating among whites fell but rose among minorities. More recently, when a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll asked voters if this summer’s criticism of Obama and his health care plan was racially motivated, 71 percent of whites thought the attacks were not racially motivated, while 63 percent of blacks thought just the opposite.

These perceptual realities have significant implications for how President Obama governs. As a presidential candidate, Obama was careful to avoid discussing racial issues whenever possible. This strategy, called deracialization, has become a standard method by which African American candidates cultivate crossover support. But critics of deracialization argue that some whites support these candidates specifically to avoid discussions of racial inequality, and they fear that these voters will punish officials who deviate from the electoral compact by withholding their votes.

All of us should be working toward the postracial ideal, but we will not get there by pretending that the racial differences that persist are fantasies. They are very real, and they correlate with our policy preferences and political behaviors. We need to be willing to engage these issues and let our president provide moral leadership. Unfortunately, the events of the past summer portend an Obama administration that will run away from salient racial issues.

One day, hopefully, race really will not matter. How will we know? We will know that America is truly postracial when we can no longer discern significant differences in people’s life chances because of race. When we look at two babies of the same gender, one white and one nonwhite, born on the same day to parents of the same class background in the same part of the country, they should have the same life expectancy, the same probability of finishing college and of being employed. This does not mean that these two babies will have the same life outcomes—individuals are responsible for their own destinies—but the absence of any meaningful difference in opportunity will mean that one child does not benefit from structural advantages based on race. This is the moment when I will be satisfied that we are in a postracial world.

Andra Gillespie is assistant professor of political science.

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