This February marks the 37th year that the US government officially celebrates Black History Month. Designated as a time to acknowledge the oft-ignored contributions of black Americans in building history, the month, in recent years, has been criticized by many white Americans. Many question the notion that black Americans need a “special” month, claiming that it signifies unfair and preferential treatment. This idea has only gained force since the election of Barack Obama, which for many heralded the era of a “post-racial America.” But ironically, with post-racial America comes ugly racial backlash, directly contradicting the apparent progress made thus far.
In post-racial Obamamerica, the idea of electing a black president signified for many the end of America’s regime of racial apartheid. This narrative is a comforting one for white Americans, able to wash their hands clean of a racially tainted past and move forward with the dream of a multiracial, multi-ethnic society of equal opportunity. But this comfort is shortsighted and dangerous: not only does this narrative gloss over innumerable structural and institutional inequalities facing the black community, it also provides a malicious opening for those not so concerned with progress, those who look nostalgically upon the days of Jim Crow.
In fact, the idea of a post-racial America could not be farther from the truth. As the Supreme Court prepares to release decisions on the fairness of affirmative action and potentially strike down parts of the Voting Rights Act, we must question our assumptions about what equality means. Any decision blocking these programs relies on a notion of equality as sameness of treatment; this idea holds great force in today’s political culture and yet does little to actually promote true equality.
Sameness of treatment relies on a historical understanding of justice, fairness, and equality that quite simply does not translate into the real world. Its inherent flaw rests in the fact that it assumes an equal starting point and ignores the fundamental inequalities that pervade American society.
Income inequality, certainly, remains the most talked-about flash point in the media. But in a country where schools are largely funded by property taxes, children from poor neighborhoods face incompetent, broken, and cash-strapped institutions that provide little opportunity for social mobility. Not surprisingly, many of these schools rest in black neighborhoods. Low social mobility means that black Americans also suffer disproportionately high unemployment rates: January’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics put seasonally-adjusted black unemployment at approximately 14%, as opposed to around 7% in the white population.
This is merely a brief, simplistic introduction of the structural racism facing black America. But many Americans, believing in the myth of equality of opportunity and sameness of treatment, refuse to acknowledge the pervasive racism that still exists in America today. Chief “evidence” of this idea typically rests on the shoulders of Barack Obama.
As the first black president and a symbol of racial progress, Obama has done remarkably little in terms of race. He has talked about race less than any other Democratic president since the 1961 and rarely even pays lip service to problems facing the black community, such as police abuse, explosive prison rates, the war on drugs, high HIV rates, poor schools, and unemployment. A large part of this has to do with the backlash he faces from mentioning, as a black man, anything to do with race.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his remarkable essay Fear of a Black President: “The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being ‘clean’ (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.”
Ultimately, all black Americans are expected to play this role: post-racial America and its toxic political culture demand that they ignore structural inequality and the remnants of racism’s brutal past, in favor of the ever-so-distant ideal of sameness of treatment. To ignore this, to acknowledge the racial inequality that still exists today, is a cardinal sin.
That “cardinal sin” plays directly into the hands of those who wish to turn back the clock on racial progress. Alabama, suing the government over the Voting Rights Act’s stipulation that southern states be monitored for any changes in voting rules, cites post-racial political culture and sameness of treatment in its primary arguments. But this idea is incredibly dangerous: how would absolute sameness of treatment look in a society shaped on the backs of slaves and the omnipresent institution of racism?
Some prefer not to acknowledge it. But this February 26th marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin, one of the ugliest incidents of racial animus in recent memory – if not only for the shooting itself, but for the angry white backlash that followed.
Post-racial America remains a dream far in the distance. With what is left of this February, instead of congratulating ourselves on the progress we’ve made, let’s take a deeper and harder look at what we have left to do. It’s intimidating, and seemingly impossible, but to close our eyes to the ever-persistent racism in today’s United States is perhaps the greatest sin of all.
– Molly Korab
(Featured photo: MDGovpics, Creative Commons, Flickr)