Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Is this a post-racial society?

White prejudice often shows up in the United States as white people speaking from their particular perspective as if it were universal, treating non-whites as if they were invisible or non-existent. With this point in mind, recent statements by white people in the context of the Obama candidacy that we live in a "post racial" society could mean just the opposite; when this view is held mainly by white people it could be evidence that race and racism are quite alive and operative, and that the form taken by racism and prejudice is predominantly of the insidious kind.  We will live in a post-racial society, paradoxically enough, when people make explicit the group perspective from which they are viewing the world. 

A case in point:  In the September 14th issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Matt Bai argues that identity politics are a minor factor in this year's presidential race.  He claims that for younger voters issues of race and gender are minor: "It turns out that the biggest deal about racial and gender identity is that, especially to younger Americans who live and work in a vastly changed country, it isn't such a very big deal after all".  (p. 10)

I wonder which younger voters Bai is referring to; it seems to me that, given the overwhelming percentage of black voters of all age groups who, according to polls, plan to vote for Obama, he must be referring to white voters.  I suppose it is possible that 97% of black voters think Obama is the better candidate based on factors having nothing to do with race, while less than half of white voters think so.  But I think it is more likely that black voters of all ages have in mind, not only the history of systematic denial of opportunity and rights to black citizens in the United States, but also the hope that Barack Obama will pay more attention to the specific challenges faced by black people and families, as well as the ongoing race-based inequities in this country.

Consider that while blacks make up 13% of the US population, as of 1995 according to Human Rights Watch, they made up 30% of those arrested, 44% of those in jail, and 49% of those serving longer terms in prison.  About 1/3 of black men aged 20-29 were in jail or prison, or on probation or parole in that year, and 13% of black adult males had lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction.  In 2002, 5% of black men were incarcerated, compared to .6% of white men.  As of mid-1999 there were nearly 800,000 black men in prison, or 4.6%, 11.3% of black men aged 20-34, as well as 68000 black women.  

It seems to me that one can claim that we live in a post-racial society only by ignoring figures such as these, and others like them having to do with racial disparities in infant mortality, poverty, substandard housing, and the like. It is to be expected that blacks will be aware of and concerned about these inequities, since they affect black communities disproportionately.  But if we were indeed a post-racial society, that is, if we were indeed one country, under God, indivisible, then whites could not be rested comfortably unaware of such suffering among the people of one sub-group.  I imagine that one of the reasons why black people favor Obama in such overwhelming numbers is that they hope that as a black man, those 868,000 black men and women in prison, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, are more likely to show up on his radar screen.  If the fact that Obama is running for President allows white people to believe that racially based inequities  are behind us, his candidacy in that particular way will have contributed, ironically, to setting us back in the effort to become a post-racial society.


quit wicked company said...

Well said. For me, it raises the issue of how young people are explaining the incarceration rates you cite if not through the lens of race and racism. It makes me worry that the racism inherent in the incarceration phenomenon is being rendered even more invisible and either completely disavowed or split off and stored somewhere else, even further away from the mainstream...

Neil Altman's blog said...

My friend Larry Siegel pointed out, backchannel, that one can certainly vote for Obama for reasons having nothing to do with race, without thereby denying that race and racism are still major factors in US society. Thanks for that, Larry; I guess I conflated the two.
I also was amused and embarrassed to note that I did not locate myself racially in the post, and that I presumed, to some extent, to speak for black people in speculating about why African-Americans would vote for Obama. I guess it shouldn't be surprising when we enact that which we are talking about, even to comdemn it.

Neil Altman's blog said...

From Susan BodnarOur society might be post-racial but we haven't really finished being racial, yet. Just like post-modernism has tended to skip over essential human conflicts by developing a decidedly distance position from which to analyze, post-racism tends to convey a similar "as-if" analysis of race. Working out race does mean addressing the fact that people like to project their feelings, fears, and anxiety on black people because we have categorized black as different than white, and if black people internalize this they end up identifying with their role models. I think an Obama presidency can help challenge this vicious cycle - and it is a sign of hope for black people - and it is very threatening for white people - and black people deserve an ascendancy of this sort.