Having a black president does not mean our nation has overcome it’s issues with race.
With the ascendancy of Barack Obama during the primaries and his election twice as the forty-fourth president of the United States, on numerous occasions the media have asserted that the United States can now be considered as a “post-racial” society, where the notion that “race” has lost its significance, and where our country’s long history of racism is now at an end.
For example, National Public Radio Senior News Analyst, Daniel Schorr, during the presidential primaries on January 28, 2008 on All Things Considered noted that with the emergence of Barack Obama, we have entered a new “post-racial” political era, and that Obama “transcends race” and is “race free.”
And according to MSNBC political analyst, Chris Matthews, responding to Obama’s State of the Union message on January 27, 2010: “He is post-racial by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he’s gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it’s something we don’t even think about.”
These commentators and others imply a number of claims in their statements: The first that we have become a “race-blind” or “colorblind” society – that race has become unimportant, that we don’t see “race” anymore. The second implication states that racism (i.e., prejudice along with social power to enact oppression by white people over people of color) is a thing of the past.
Is the United States now a “colorblind” society? Or even more importantly, should the United States be a “colorblind / race-blind” society? The very notion of “race-blindness” is deeply problematic.
Though when we tell another that “I don’t see your race; I just see you as a human being,” may seem as a righteous statement, what are we really telling the person, and how may this come across: “I discount a part of you that I may not want to address,” and “I will not see you in your multiple identities.” This has the tendency of erasing the person’s background and historical legacy, and hides the continuing hierarchical and systemic positionalities among white people and racially minoritized people.
In addition, the assertion that we have fully addressed and finally concluded the long history of racism in the United States with the election of Barack Obama is simply unfounded.
Anti-racism consultant Valerie Batts discusses what she terms as “new forms of racism.” While the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision (1954), the Civil Right Act (1964), and other judicial and legislative actions have criminalized a number of past realities (for example, slavery, “Jim Crow” laws, lynchings, cross burnings, segregated educational, employment, business, and governmental institutions, and more), many forms of racism continue.
While some of these conditions continue today on a de facto basis, Batts lists these “new forms” as “Dysfunctional Rescuing” where white people “help” people of color in a condescending way believing they can’t help themselves; “Blaming the Victims” of systematic oppression for the oppression itself; “Avoidance of Contact” where white people self segregate in their personal and professional lives from people of color, and where white people show little interest in learning about the cultures of communities of color; “Denial of Cultural Differences,” the notion of “color blindness,” which minimizes the cultural and behavioral difference among people, which simply mask discomfort with racialized differences; and “Denial of Political Significance of Differences,” in which white people deny the profound impact regarding the social, political, and economic realities of the lives of people of color.
I add to the list of conditions that perpetuate systemic racism the concept of stereotyping. A stereotype is an oversimplified or misinformed perception, opinion, attitude, judgment, or image of a person or a group of people held in common by members of other groups. Originally referring to the process of making type from a metal mold in printing, social stereotypes can be viewed as molds of regular and invariable patterns of evaluation on others.
With stereotypes, people tend to overlook all other characteristics of the group. Stereotypes of out-group members by in-group members depersonalize them, in effect seeing them largely as members of a group and not as individuals with unique and distinctive qualities and attributes. This often results in the tendency to diminish the humanity of out-group members relegating them to the category of “other,” and as “different.”
Individuals sometime use stereotypes to justify continued marginalization and subjugation of members of that group. In this sense, stereotypes conform to the literal meaning of the word “prejudice,” which is a prejudgment, derived from the Latinpraejudicium.
This is the case, for example, in actions explicitly intended as a mockery of Black History Month when a number of institutions around the country, for example in 2010, two years after Obama’s first election, a group of students at the University of California at San Diego, throw off-campus “ghetto themed parties.” Attendees were advised to come wearing chains, cheap clothing, and speak very loudly, and where female students are urged to come as “ghetto chicks.”
In part, according to the invitation UCSD student organizers sent announcing what they referred to as the “Compton Cookout”: “…For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks — Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes, they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red….” The invitation continued: “We will be serving 40’s, Kegs of Natty, dat Purple Drank, which consists of sugar, water, and the color purple, chicken, cool aide, and of course Watermelon.”
We must not and cannot dismiss these incidents as simply the actions of a few individuals, for racism and other forms of oppression exist on multiple levels. These incidents are symptoms of larger systemic national problems.
The current demonstrators protesting alleged police harassment and unprovoked killings of unarmed black men and boys surfacing throughout U.S. highlights the longstanding and continuous tensions and confrontations between police forces and the communities they are meant to serve. An essential question we must discuss and eventually answer, however, is: “Whose interests do they actually serve?”
In their book Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society, the authors show how the concept of “colorblindness / race-blindness” attempts to deny and further entrench hierarchical and deeply rooted systemic racial inequities and privileges accorded to white people that permeate throughout our society.
We must as a society get beyond this false and counterproductive notion of “colorblindness / race-blindness” and confront head-on our past history and current realities of racism and transcend, to use Mica Pollock’s term, “colormuteness” by engaging in honest and open conversations on the impact and legacy of race relations in our country.
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