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Is Racism Worse in the Age of Obama?

There are plenty of downsides to racism, but the biggest is perhaps the fear and paranoia it instills in those who have experienced it or seen it up close and personal.

There are plenty of downsides to racism, but the biggest is perhaps the fear and paranoia it instills in those who have experienced it or seen it up close and personal.

More than skin color or even the growing racial wealth gap it is this fear that remains one of the greatest unspoken gulfs between racial minorities, and everybody else. I say this because I -- someone who is occasionally criticized for presenting an optimistic view of race relations in my writing that is increasingly common among my generation -- have experienced this gulf with my white friends. They will simply never know what it's like to assume that the overly attentive sales associate following you around the store (without ever offering to assist you), is following you because she's worried you may steal something because of your race. It's a thought that will simply never cross their minds. (And yes for the record this has happened to me more than once. I've even been followed out of a store so an associate could "double check" that I had "remembered to pay," and this was after I had begun appearing on television regularly and had actually patronized the store several times before.)


But when your parents grow up in the segregated South and you grow up in the age of  The Cosby Show, you remain conscious of the fact that being followed in a store will always pale in comparison to being called the n-word every day at school (which happened to my mother) or taunted with the threat of lynching (which happened to my father.) Yet the further along we go into the Obama era, which many assumed would mark the start of a new chapter in American race relations, a provocative question has emerged: Is subtle racism actually more damaging to black Americans than blatant racism?

I had never really considered this question until a panel discussion for the new book  Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? by cultural critic Toure. (Click  here to read my interview with Toure on race in the age of Obama.) Among dozens of questions he asked over 100 influential black Americans one was, "What's the most racist thing that's ever happened to you?" Though some shared incidents of breathtaking, blatant racism and of course the N-word made an appearance or two, the most popular answer was what Toure dubbed "the unknowable;" a moment they cited that may have negatively impacted their lives in an incredibly significant way, such as a lost job opportunity, or home loan, that they suspect was tied to their race yet ultimately they will never know for sure and never be able to prove it, so there's nothing to be done about it. But it haunts them, in a way that being called the N-word by some jerk out in the open, no longer does.

In the age of Obama in which even David Duke has enough sense not to use the N-word in public, "the unknowable" has become the most common form of discrimination, unknowable, and thus un-provable. It's therefore become a bit like a form of slow burning psychological torture for those who believe they've endured it. After all, it's one thing to struggle to find a job in a horrendous economy -- something people of all races are grappling with. But it's another to know that  studies have confirmed that even today just by virtue of being black you are less likely to get a job opportunity than a white male with a prison record, even when you don't have one.

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