Recently, there have been analysts who have claimed that America is “post-racial”. “With the election of America’s first black president”, they say, “America has moved beyond the racism of its past”. Such a belief, even in its best and most sincere expression is naïve and not reflective of race differences in America.
I recently read Studs Terkel’s Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession and saw a couple of things which I think are apropos to a discussion on “post-racial America”. The first quote involves a white man in Kentucky:
“Affirmative action” has become an explosive phrase as well as an idea. The president vetoes a civil rights bill because he is against “quotas”. Respected journals sound the righteous battle cry: ‘Reverse racism.” Ben Hensley makes no public pronouncements on the subject. He’s from Harlan County, Kentucky. He’s driven busses and trucks, and is now a chauffeur for big-time executives.
“When I worked in Nashville as a helper on a delivery truck for Fred Harvey, a black fellow was working with me. He was older and had been there more years than me. They gave me the job driving and I became his boss. He knew the area better than I did, had to tell me where to go. I don’t know how many guys he trained for that job. …
“I never owned any slaves but I profited at that black fellow’s expense. I think it’s very fair to have affirmative action. For hundreds of years, the black people have had negative action. So they are not starting even.”
Not starting even. That is the point of Affirmative Action. Not that someone sees black and charges him less for a cupcake, but someone sees a black and immediately decides he is “not what we’re looking for” for a position. Someone sees a black and automatically believes he is worth less for a wage or only fit for the most pack-mulish of positions, or wonders what nefarious activity he must have in his background. Also, Affirmative action is not about “reparations” although it is often presented that way. If I am required by law to consider blacks, I am not paying them back for slavery, but I am forced to consider – against my first impression – that the black man in front of me might have what it takes to do the job and I should consider him. We as a country have not outgrown the way we see blacks.
Oppression is still a part of our landscape. It can easily be said that every country has its oppressors and its oppressed, but is that truism to be used to trivialize oppression? What has been common in the Christian churches that I have attended is when the Bible talks about oppression or poverty is to make it sound like there are no poor or oppressed in America. “What we have is nothing like 1st century Israel”, they say and with such gymnastics exempt the church from caring about the plight of blacks in this country or, worse, to present the blacks as deserving of their place.
Another consideration is that while light-years ahead of what we were in Black/White relations, we whites really have no idea what blacks live with. Since whites are the ones handing out “rights” to the blacks, we think we are being generous while blacks see us as patronizing and are offended that we deign to “give” them rights which should have been theirs by virtue of being born in this country. Even in this late date, blacks – even the upper class blacks – grow up treated quite differently than their white counterparts. To this, Terkel quotes a black Insurance Broker,
Being black in America is like being forced to wear ill-fitting shoes. Some people adjust to it. It’s always uncomfortable on your feet, but you’ve got to wear it because it’s the only shoe you’ve got. Some people can bear the uncomfort more than others. Some people can block it from their minds, some can’t. When you see some acting docile and some acting militant, they have one thing in common: The shoe is uncomfortable.
Though written in 1992, I think the race issue has deteriorated from even that point. The economic disparity between the races has grown as has the hopelessness of blacks. Note that Obama’s election has resulted in the relentless demonizing of him aided in part by deliberate evoking of his “otherness”. There is something about him which is unlike “real” Americans. The incredible – and not unpredictable – display of celebration and hopefulness in blacks which resulted from the impossible happening was quickly declared inappropriate and itself racist.
In the end, it is not for whites to declare the United States a “post-racial” country. Indeed, many of the cases I have read, such a claim is made self-servingly with an eye to reverse the civil rights gains blacks have gotten. Blacks still live their lives from an uneven position and blacks live day to day with the ache of treatment – often unconscious – unlike what the whites experience. As a Black woman explains it in Terkel’s book, My father has worked hard all his life, now he’s an executive. He has stayed married with my mother and raised a family. You will not see a better family man or a better employee. Yet, when he goes to his office and gets on the elevator, the white woman on the elevator clutches her purse harder.