The Triumph of Post-racialism? The Election of Barack Obama and the Coming Conversation on Race in America
The election of Barack Obama has spurred conversations among politicians, members of the media, and everyday people about the impact of race on American social and political culture. The theme permeating these discussions has been the notion of President-elect Obama embodying a "post-racial" politics. Remarkably similar to the notion of colorblindness where people supposedly don't "see" race, "post-racialism" is a concept that underscores the willingness of individuals to deemphasize race in their political decision making. Some writers, such as the New York Times Magazine political columnist, Matthew Bai, asserted Obama represented a new generation of black leaders who seek to ground their political ideologies, arguments, campaigns, and overall style, in an admittedly complicated, but transcendent, notion of "post-racial" politics in his article, "Is Obama the End of Black Politics." Similarly, conservative author, Shelby Steele, has argued in a recent Los Angeles Times article that President-elect Obama ran as a "post-racial" candidate who bargained his racial identity--and all of its political implications--in exchange for white support.
So, now that President-elect Obama will take the oath on January 20 are we living in a post-racial world? I think it is too soon to tell, but not too early to discuss.
However, it is important that we use this unprecedented historical moment to talk about race more generally. How will an Obama presidency alter the perceptions of blacks, whites, and other racial and ethnic groups? While it is vital to consider how an Obama presidency could blur the racial vision and realities of people, we also must not forget that the circumstances and interactions of different peoples remain based upon racialized ideas and assumptions, negative and/or positive. How will our conversations about race change? Will we, anti-racist activists, be open-minded enough to take criticism? Will those skeptical individuals be ready to not just call for an end of affirmative action policies because one African-American--out of forty-four--won the presidency, but think of ways in which we can close gaps between peoples of color and whites in wealth, health, and education, since many of these disparities are due to the racialized organization of American society?
Again, it may be too early to know what kind of solutions we can come up with. One thing is for sure, we must talk. We will have to listen to each other, disagree, and arrive at a semblance of consensus. We must be careful, courteous, humble, respectful, and dignified when addressing one another. We all must talk about our personal experiences that are shaped by race (as well as gender, age, class, sexuality, etc.), whether we are black, white, Mexican, Iranian, Chinese, Korean, etc. None of us will always approve of all our ideas regarding racial issues and/or solutions. Yet, we need to start thinking about converging around one point--that is provoking a thoughtful discussion on race. This is a subject and an endeavor that not one person holds a monopoly. And there is no blueprint for having a conversation on race. We must not just try to get beyond race for the sake of it. Transcending race does not mean looking for that proverbial silver bullet, avoidance, or forgetfulness, it means confronting racial issues head on, excavating and evaluating the history of the United States, and then arriving at a resolution and plan for action.
Many of us hope to begin this process Tuesday night. On November 18, at 7:30PM, Save the World, Black United Students, Harambee, and the Muslim Student Association will sponsor a public conversation on race called Skin Speak: Race Relations, Our Campus, Our World. It will be held in Oscar Ritchie Lecture Hall, room 214, and Idris Kabir Syed, professor from the Pan African Studies Department, will facilitate the discussion. We encourage everyone from all backgrounds to attend, even if you believe we need to get over race. There may be moments of conflict, and hopefully, there will be points of consensus. Ultimately, we may learn something new about race relations, Kent State University, and about each other. But if you cannot make it, or you do not live in the area, then organize your own discussions. Take over your local coffeeshops and encourage others to participate. Start online threads and discussion groups. Create reading groups where you select books that cover a variety of viewpoints. Because, right now, what you now know about American race relations will not be as significant as what we can learn about each other tomorrow.