Last week the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that struck down Michigan’s constitutional amendment banning the consideration of race in public university admission. In her 58-page dissent (longer than the other four judges’ opinions combined) Justice Sonia Sotomayor argues that the stance taken by many in this country, including her colleague Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., is too simplistic. She is just one of a number of political voices speaking out in recent months, opening up the discussion on race yet again.
At an event celebrating Black History Month — a cultural practice that presents its own problems — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Department of Justice employees that despite America’s self-image as an ethnic melting pot, “we have always been and we — I believe continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards” on racial issues. He goes on to say that Americans are afraid to talk about race for fear of embarrassment and “at worst the questioning of one’s character.” As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s important to take stock of how far we have come, but we can’t use that progress as an excuse to ignore how much farther we have to go.
Some people like to argue that we live in a post-racial society, that we live in a time when race has ceased to be an issue in America. The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 has supposedly ushered in this time, the logic being: if we can elect a (half-)black president, twice, race must not be an issue in this country. This flawed thinking would be hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous; just because men in white sheets don’t burn crosses on your front lawn doesn’t mean that we woke up on November 5, 2008, and racism was a thing of the past.
Arizona passed a law that basically legalized racial profiling by requiring police officers to ask for suspected illegal immigrants’ identification; this is not the type of legislation that would be passed in a post-racial society. Immigrants (legal or otherwise) would not be treated with suspicion and anger for wanting a better life in a post-racial society, and being angry over loud “thug crap” would not be justification for shooting an unarmed teenager in a culture where something as innocuous as your favorite style of music is linked to your worth as a human; not in a post-racial society.
Even more threatening to this ideal society than our fear of being labeled racist is our tendency to unknowingly perpetuate racial stereotypes. It seems like a compliment when you tell your friend that they “sound so white” when they talk or that “you always forget” that they are black or when someone is jokingly called an “Oreo” (which are all statements that have been directed at me verbatim), but what is actually being said is: “you defy racial stereotypes, your behavior is outside my concept of what a black person is, says, can and should be.” There is a stigma to “acting white” because everyone, on all sides of the color barrier, has bought into the message that to be black is to be poor, uneducated, and unmotivated and to be anything else is to deserve another classification.
This type of thinking is not just an external problem. The black community has a similar problem with self-perception: It’s still common for black children to feel isolated from their own community because they don’t fit in with those stereotypes. For example, there is often an emphasis on and easy acceptance of athletic ability over academic achievement. More often than not the black elite who have the ability — and some would argue the responsibility — to make real change in this perception leave the community and never look back; in essence, we all buy into the stereotypes and we all reinforce them, often without realizing.
Holder’s comments set off a firestorm of criticism. As often happens in the modern world, the debate on the Internet has been far from productive, but Holder and Sotomayor have hit the nail on the head: There is a big, multi-ethnic, caffeine-fueled elephant in the room, and we can’t afford to keep on ignoring it.
I agree with Justice Sotomayor. We can’t wish away racial inequality just because we’re sick of the topic. It has been my observation that the people who most fervently defend the idea of a post-racial America are simply sick of being reminded of crimes they didn’t commit. Most of these people are good, honest Americans who just want to live their lives as good people. But many of the reasons we don’t live in a post-racial society stem from this very problem.
We want to move past the issue of race without doing the hard work of healing old wounds, but choosing to bury our heads in the sand and ignore all of the evidence of racism is a large reason why it still exists. It’s because we don’t talk about race that it’s funny to dress up in blackface with padded behinds and “ghetto” outfits for Halloween. Because we don’t talk about race we still fall back onto racial stereotypes when we talk about the drug wars and the welfare system, despite statistical evidence that shows these issues, like all forms of inequality, are much more complicated.
Because we don’t talk about race, we try to treat the symptom (affirmative action) instead of the problem (minorities are at a disadvantage long before the Common App), and as a result, minorities are still underrepresented in American universities. Because we don’t talk about race, a social media storm started when a black actress was cast as Rue in “The Hunger Games,” a character described in the book as brown-skinned with curly hair, and when Lupita Nyong’o was recognized as People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman” this year. When an Indian-American beauty queen won Miss America, it was racism that had people calling her a terrorist, saying that she should go home, and insisting that there was no way she should qualify to win the pageant.
I understand the draw of a post-racial America. It must be exhausting to live in a world where a simple joke meant to entertain or an offhanded remark meant to compliment (Sen. Harry Reid admitted to saying that then-Sen. Obama could go far in the election because he has light skin and “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one” — a reference to the practice called code-switching) can cause people you call friends to suddenly question your character. However, it’s also exhausting to feel your heart race every time you see a cop car in the rearview mirror or to explain to your clearly well-intended friends why you have to wrap your hair every night at your sleepover for your 12th birthday. It would be freeing to live in a world where you no longer feel the need to tiptoe around people’s feelings or a world where controversial phrases like “affirmative action” are relics of a dark past. The problem is, Holder and Sotomayor are right: We as a nation have dropped the ball and let racial inequality take root in this country while we prune the branches and declare ourselves successful.
While I highly doubt that we could achieve a post-racial society in my lifetime, we are perfectly capable of making the first steps. We’re not going to magically get over our perceptions about ourselves and others overnight, but we can start having open and honest discussions with those around us. When we set aside preconceived notions and assumptions, we open the door to productive conversation, and that is the catalyst to real progress.
Brie Powell is a sophomore political science major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at [email protected].