Friday, March 23, 2012

Just what does "post-racial" mean, anyway?

Despite my agreeing with 90% of its actual, substantive content, I'm still finding this post on Slate's XX Factor unbearably smug. I think it's mostly the conclusion:
For anyone who has fooled themselves into believing we live in a “post-racial” country, this glimpse into the besieged lives of people of color should quickly correct that misapprehension.
Ah, the old "post-racial" gambit. You see, kids, way back in 2008, when everyone was excited about the prospect of a black man becoming president, someone raised the question of whether America was becoming "post-racial." And ever since then, smarmy liberals have jumped on the term whenever possible, taking every opportunity to laugh at the poor saps who dared suggest that racial enmity and inequality have vanished.

The problem is that no one ever said that. As far as I know, not a single person who seriously talked about "post-racial America" construed the term to mean a present-day America without any sort of racial problems. The phrase always had a hopeful, aspirational element: think "America is becoming post-racial," not that America is post-racial. And more than that, it described less the conclusion of the problem of race than its transformation.

People today like to pretend that the country's current racial problems--the sort of low-level, relatively anonymous discrimination and inequality that hounds minorities--are the same problems we've always had. These people have totally forgotten (or, in some cases, strategically ignored) the Bad Old Days, when race was a very different type of problem altogether. I mean, there was a time, not very long ago, when plenty of people didn't see racial discrimination as a problem at all! They defended it! And I'm not talking about Jim Crow. I'm talking about people in my own lifetime, who didn't believe different races should marry, or live in close proximity. But today, there's a fairly strong consensus about how much race should matter in society, which is to say, not at all. Open racists have been essentially driven out of the public sphere.

To me, that's what "post-racial" means. A society in which the question of race has been settled, even if the problem has not been resolved. We're not colorblind, but color is no longer a basic organizing principle of the nation. On the whole, we're pretty canny about stereotypes, and we basically all agree that judging on the color of their skin is a scummy thing to do. (It still happens, but we're working on that, okay?)

Now, as we're periodically reminded--currently by the horrifying Trayvon Martin case--the progress we've made is insufficient to prevent awful, awful things from going down occasionally. And it's probably unfair to expect measured responses in the face of hate crimes. But I also sort of think that many liberals' refusal to acknowledge progress on race is actually harmful to their own cause. Attitudes about race have changed since the 50s, and the 70s, and even the 90s. That's not just laudable trend--it's also proof that things really can improve. That racial discrimination isn't a social ill inbuilt into our psyches or societies, but a pervasive historical trend that can be slowly pushed back. And look: it's really good to remind people of that. The best way to see that there's room for advancement is to look back and see how far America's come already. Is racial discrimination widespread? Yep. Is it deplorable? Of course. But is it eternal, like I've heard so many liberals claim? History says no.

And that's why I'd much prefer that race-conscious liberals reserve their criticism for actual discrimination. Turning sour and derisive whenever someone takes note of progress isn't going to motivate anyone to go make a difference. History says a post-racial country is possible, and if there are optimists out there who want to believe we're getting closer to it... well, maybe we should just let them.

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