We Have a Black President, But That Doesn't Resolve the Deep Racism Built into the American Psyche
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It was summer 2004 when most of us first became familiar with Barack Obama. Then an Illinois state senator, the U.S. senate candidate delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston: the first of his many now-famous orations on a national stage. Therein he delivered several applause lines, but none were as big as when he proclaimed:
"There's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."
Though one might welcome such a statement were it offered in the future and aspirational tense -- as a heartfelt plea for true equality -- Obama proclaimed it in the descriptive and present tense. In so doing he traded intellectual honesty for easy and predictable ovation. After all, 2004 was the same year that research from MIT and the University of Chicago found that job applicants with "white" names were 50 percent more likely to be called back for an interview than those with "black" names, even when all their qualifications were indistinguishable. And with black and brown unemployment standing at double the white rate, even as the new upstart from Chicago poured forth rhetoric professing national unity (and with the median white family possessing 8-10 times the net worth of the median black or Latino family), it should have been apparent that Obama was engaged in political science fiction rather than the description of sociological truth.
Post-Racial Liberalism: Its Origins and Trajectory
To be fair, of course, the rhetoric of post-racial liberalism wasn't something invented by the current President. Rather, it has its roots in the period immediately following the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for instance -- an advisor to President Johnson before becoming a United States Senator -- who first suggested that the nation would do well to engage in "benign neglect" when it came to the issue of race.
According to Moynihan, persistent inequities between whites and blacks could best be addressed by the passage of race-neutral, universal programs to help all in need; that, in addition to focusing on presumed cultural defects in the black community, from single parent families to crime to an inadequate attachment to education and the labor market. While conservatives made some of the same arguments about so-called black cultural pathology during this period, what distinguished post-racial liberalism from the new cultural racism of the right was its stated commitment to reducing racial disparities, albeit by non-racial means.
By the late 1970s, the leading herald of post-racial liberalism was University of Chicago sociologist, William Julius Wilson, an African American scholar (now at Harvard) whose books, The Declining Significance of Race, and later, The Truly Disadvantaged, put forth the two main pillars of post-racial thought. The first of these was that racial inequities were now mostly the result of race-neutral factors like deindustrialization, the mismatch between jobs (increasingly in suburbs) and people of color (who lived mostly in cities), and inadequate investment in education and other public goods. The second pillar of Wilson's position was the political calculation that white backlash to things like affirmative action now made it necessary to push universal, race-neutral solutions to those problems, rather than race-specific programs and efforts. In short, we needed to talk less about racism, and more about class.
It is this race-neutral approach (which involves both a rhetoric of racial transcendence and a colorblind public policy agenda), which Barack Obama advocated in his best-selling policy book, The Audacity of Hope. And it is this same approach that he endorsed all throughout the campaign for the Presidency, and which he has articulated consistently since winning the election. When asked about persistent health disparities between whites and blacks, for instance, Obama has maintained that universal coverage and making health care more affordable for all is the best way to close those gaps. When asked about the depression-level job situation in communities of color (in which even blacks with college degrees are nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to be out of work, and college educated Latinos 2/3 more likely than similar whites to be unemployed), Obama has insisted that a "rising tide lifts all boats," and so the stimulus package and other measures to get the economy "moving again" are the best remedies for the suffering of folks of color.
But as I show in my new book, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, President Obama and other adherents to the post-racial liberal philosophy are flatly wrong. In fact, not only are they wrong about the ability of "universal" programs to reduce racial disparities in health, income or education; they are also wrong about the political value of race-neutral approaches. At the end of the day, avoiding conversations about race will not boost support for progressive social policy, and may in fact undermine it.
Why Colorblind Policy Cannot Solve Racial Disparities
To begin, race-neutral policies cannot possibly solve persistent racial inequities. Because so many of those disparities are caused by racial discrimination -- not merely the residue of past racism but ongoing racial discrimination in the present-day -- universal efforts, though valuable, will prove insufficient. If people of color face discrimination in employment, housing, education and the provision of health care (and I document fully in Colorblind the considerable extent to which they do), economic stimulus legislation, universal health care, or better-funded schools will be inadequate to the task of closing racial gaps. Companies that get the stimulus money for construction projects, for instance, will still provide unequal opportunity to black and brown folks; doctors will continue to treat their patients of color unequally (as has been documented by numerous studies), and schools, though better funded, will continue to track students of color into remedial classes, regardless of their ability, and discipline them more harshly even though rates of misconduct are similar among all racial groups.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of the inadequacy of race-neutral, universal policy comes in the arena of health care. As I note in Colorblind, the racial gaps in health outcomes between whites and blacks, for instance, are mostly unrelated to mere issues of coverage, affordability, or health care access. In short, they are not about economics. Consider the following: