The Paradigm Shift: The Origins of the Post-Racial Fantasy
It’s part of the (sarcastic) tagline of our site. The concept of “post-racial America” is something that raged about and discussed ad nauseum in the blogosphere, especially here. If you’re new to things here, then I think the term, and the implication that we are somehow past the racial and cultural issues that plagued and defined our country, is utter bullshit. I think it demeans the true struggle for equality of minority groups and makes it easy to blame minorities for “bringing up race” or “playing the race card” when voicing opinion on truly racially-charged issues. It stymies progress and tilts the scales toward a bastardized “colorblindness” so that folks like Rush Limbaugh can say as many racist things as they want – as long as they don’t use words we deem offensive – and be considered within reason, but the people they demean cannot respond, even in logic-based critique, lest they be accused of pulling the race card or of being reverse racists. At best, it’s a tool for indifference and willful ignorance of painful history lessons for well-meaning people. At worst, it’s a tool for genuinely malicious individuals who would see history white-washed and would see the gains that minorities (especially Blacks and Hispanics) have achieved and will achieve erased.
Popular opinion states that the the birth of the term was around 2008, when Barack Obama’s election to the presidency signified perhaps the single most important African-American breakthrough in history (although I’d posit that a few earlier advancements, like Frederick Douglass’, were probably more difficult given the historical context) and gave much more gravitas to the “you can do anything” mantra that we like to tell kids. Obama’s election gave legitimate hope to Black people that they can succeed and make it if they work hard and set high ceilings, and I think this effect will go down as the most lasting element of his presidency. But somewhere along the line, the concept of Obama’s presidency bringing us closer to true equality of opportunity between races became confused with believing that completely equal opportunity already existed. Despite Obama urging more open dialog about race, and despite the numerous racially-motivated difficulties he and his family have endured, somehow his election became a signal to stop talking about race. Instead of entering an era of racial honesty where we could have an open dialog to root out racism and distrust, and could begin to solve the puzzle of the issues that beset and are often perpetuated by minorities, we began an era of serious backtracking and radio silence about it. The post-racial era.
But I think the true roots of the phrase are a bit deeper than that, and are part of an origin of which Obama’s presidency, as well as his racial upbringing, play a part. The term and the rhetoric were certainly around before 2008. I recall my experience working within a major genetic research lab where the post-racial talk was much more advanced and actually grounded in scientific theory. The debate about race and whether it and certain ascribed characteristics to it owe their creation to social or genetic forces is an old one, and has been a major talking point since white supremacists got a hold of Darwinism. The concept that race was not linked to individual genes was first truly advanced in a landmark paper called “The apportionment of human diversity” by Richard Lewontin in 1972 (sorry, I can’t find a working link for the article). The 80s and 90s, however, with works like the “Bell Curve” and the dawn of the genetic revolution, featured several endeavors to pin certain traits to races on a genetic basic. The point was seriously debated once more with the release of the final draft of the human genome in 2003, which, not coincidentally, is the first time the term “post-racial” comes up en masse in literature searches. It was then that the simmering battle over whether race is truly a genetic construct came to a head, with a slew of highly publicized articles. Many articles expressed that the common definitions of race, especially as we used them in our awkward American understanding, were fairly ambiguous in genetic terms. However, they disagreed upon how much of the difference between groups was genetic and what those groups were, and acknowledged that genetic differences between individuals of different races can vary less sometimes than those within. There are definite genetic similarities between the majorities of some groups, though, making race as a cultural term still a reasonable proxy for certain genetic traits.
However, somehow the only thing that the American media (curiously, mostly the conservative news machine) pulled out of this was the oft-quoted (and laughably simplistic) maxim that “race doesn’t exist biologically.” And they ran with it. Somehow the popular script that had been used to justify willful oppression — that Whites were superior to other races — had been flipped to justify doing nothing to correct the injustices. Conservatives have taken the point, based on a misreading of science, and advanced it as far as possible, mostly to discredit ongoing or historical claims of supremacism, segregation and more passive forms of injustice. “We can’t be racist because race doesn’t exist,” so the refrain goes, and it continues unchecked today. Therefore, because race is nothing more than a “social construct” in the eyes of pseudo-scientists who only read headlines, it is somehow an invalid reason to complain. The knowledge that we are all equal genetically (telling how this wasn’t the prevailing thought until the 90s) makes it less acceptable to stick up for and help minorities, because they should have the inborn genetic capability to do everything themselves and overcome everything with no help, just like <sarcasm> every other person who has been successful in America. </sarcasm> Right?
But here’s the problem with that line of thinking: The American way has always been to ostensibly disregard genetic differences. We were philosophically built on working with and respecting legitimate cultural differences. Of course, this wasn’t the case in reality, considering the struggles with genocide, slavery, religious oppression, and nativism that this country has had, but that was the idea. The idea that race is a discardable consideration simply because it’s a social or cultural construct is silly based on those principles. The idea that we should no longer talk about or deal with race because it’s only social, or because a single exemplar within a group made it to the top, is an affront to the struggle that many gave their lives for to have a serious conversation about equality in this country. Race is real, even if that reality is only based in social constructs, and it has a role in everyone’s experience. It isn’t and shouldn’t be the primary driver in our paths through life, but ignoring it is folly. The problem isn’t in talking about and acknowledging race, but in subordinating races. The research that I’ve done on this article has shown me that the post-racial fantasy was created partially out of a real desire to acknowledge equality, but also partially out of a real desire to erase the history of blood that has defined this country and thereby make it impossible to come up with real solutions.
As an aside, I find it interesting that the first mention I found of the term “post-racial” was also linked to President Obama. The first time I was able to find it in print was in an article by Derrick Bell Jr, the very one that contained the famous Space Traders story for which he was criticized. I’ll write more on Bell and the story soon, because it has sparked my interest, but Bell was a Black Harvard Law professor who often clashed with his institution over lack of diversity in hiring and wrote the very controversial Space Traders story about race relations. President Obama was once associated with him and of course, Conservatives had a field day. Just something to note.