Not Quite “Post-Racial”

Following is an excerpt from my remarks during my Vision Series lecture at George Mason University on Monday, December 2009--

“Racial Politics in a Post-Racial America”

Thanks You’s

     Before I begin my remarks, I want to thank Provost Peter Stearns and his staff for extending to me the generous invitation to be here this evening.  The Vision Series is an important part of the culture of the university and I’m honored to have been invited.  The list of those who have given this lecture is impressive and I’m pleased to be counted among them.  I also want to acknowledge my colleagues in the School of Public Policy for creating an environment in which ideas matter.  Lastly, I want to thank all of you for coming out this evening.  I know you could be somewhere else and I’m glad you’ve chosen to be here.
    Controversy over the role of race in American society is older than the Union itself.  Three hundred ninety years ago, the first African slaves reached what would become the United States in Jamestown, Virginia, less than a three hour drive from where we are today.  From Jamestown and various points north and south, millions of slaves were brought to the New World and became the engine that drove the agricultural economy of this nation.  Millions more did not survive the Middle Passage across the Atlantic and their bones settled at the bottom of the ocean.  The treatment of American slaves  – equal parts harsh and barbaric – and the fight to humanize a people that were seen by others as less than fully human has woven race throughout the great quilt that is America.  But there has always been a quest for universal fairness and freedom.  From the end of slavery to amending the U.S. Constitution to codify equality in some areas, and from the oppression of Jim Crow and unequal and inferior public education to the Civil Rights Movement, Americans of all colors and ethnic backgrounds for generations upon generations fought to make America better than it was.  And many rejoiced on November 4, 2008 when Senator Barack Obama – for some the living embodiment of what America could be – was elected president. 
    Obama’s election has, in many ways, re-framed how some see race and has catapulted the concept of a “post-racial” America toward the top of our socio-politico lexicon.  News outlets across the globe heralded Obama’s rocket-ride through the Democratic Party primaries and general election triumph as the dawn of a new era in American politics and society.  The great Daniel Schorr glowingly said on National Public Radio after the 2008 South Carolina Democratic Primary: “The post-racial era, as embodied by Obama, is the era where civil rights veterans of the past century are consigned to history and Americans begin to make race-free judgments on who should lead them.”  Also, The Economist called it a post-racial triumph and wrote that Obama seemed to embody the hope that America could transcends its divisions.  And that was just during the primaries.  His general election win was greeted with even more favor and proof that America has turned the corner on race.
    Some on all sides of the ideological spectrum now conclude that America’s racial problems are in our collective rear view mirror and continuing to discuss them is merely beating a dead horse. While I am highly skeptical of that view – I can’t identify one societal problem in all of recorded history that has been solved by simply ignoring it and believe that, in some ways, the deracialized tenor of the Obama campaign was a response to continued concerns about how Americans view race – I do believe that we are in the embryonic stages of a new era of race and politics.  This is a largely undefined era, so, this evening, I want to discuss the concept of a “post-racial” America and how it may impact our politics and political discourse.

“Post-Racial” – Defined
    “Post-racial” is best seen, in my view, as a mindset that believes the country has moved beyond, or nearly beyond, it’s racial history.  This history, which includes the placement of millions of Africans and their off-spring into slavery; the erection and enforcement of an oppressive race-based collection of laws dedicated to controlling the political, social, and economic behavior of the descendants of American slaves; the forcible removal of Native Americans from their rich land to desolate reservations; interment camps for Japanese during World War II, among many other notable mileposts, is a difficult and inconvenient one to accept for some and anything that can be used to “move beyond” this history will likely be attractive.
    “Post-racial”, then, is a term intended to be a compliment to American society, a statement of our collective heightened socio-political sophistication.  It is a concept that is used in polite society to suggest a level of societal sophistication to which we all should aspire, while “focusing on race” or “getting bogged down by race” is the old way of thinking and shows a backward orientation.  Like the term “post -civil rights”, it is a term that says: “we’re beyond race” (in an almost Colbertian way) or “we’ve overcome and we don’t need to trouble ourselves with the past.”   Thus, being “post-racial” is the frontier to be embraced and anything short of that is to be seen as backward.
    While it is a forward-looking term, as it relates to African Americans, it’s also a term that can be seen as a slight to previous generations of Black activists who – in court rooms, legislatures, and on the streets – who gave of their lives to help make life better in America better for everyone. As implied by Schorr’s quote, the same civil rights veterans that helped take America to new heights and helped to create a political environment in which someone like Barack Obama as president are now part of an old paradigm that is no longer valuable or relevant to our world.  I disagree.  Sometimes, we need the perspective tomorrow provides to help put into context the events of today and I think it’s a mistake to consign these individuals, their tactics, and their successes and failures to future irrelevancy.
    “Post-racial” is also a difficult sell in much of the Black community.  That is because the story for rank-and-file African Americans is not particularly hopeful.  From household wealth, unemployment, to incarceration rates,it should be understandable if some African Americans don’t feel that “post-racial” has come to their neighborhoods.  While these are difficult times in which we now live and the economic downturn is hurting people in very strata of American life, African Americans are facing a steeper fall based on the data
     Household Wealth: African American household wealth has been battered by an over-reliance on  sub-prime mortgages.  African Americans are now more likely than any other racial group to have their home foreclosed and, according to a 2008 report by United for a Fair Economy, a research and advocacy group, from 1998 to 2006 – before the subprime crisis – African Americans lost $71 billion to $93 billion in home-value wealth from subprime loans.  This lost wealth cannot be used, for example, to help supplement retirement, send a child or grandchild to college, cover health insurance costs, or bequeathed to future generations.  It should also be noted that there are numerous reports of African Americans with prime credit scores being pushed into sub-prime mortgages.
     Unemployment:  The unemployment rate among African Americans is currently 17.1%  (November, 2009). That is a much higher rate than for all of the other races that the Labor Department tracks, including Hispanics (12.7%), whites (9.3%) and Asians (7.3%).  The jobless rate for blacks has also grown much faster than for other races.   The difference between the unemployment rates for blacks and whites fell to an all-time low of 3.5 percentage points in August 2007.  By April 2009, the gap hit a 13-year high, doubling to 7 percentage points and is currently 6.3 percentage points.
    To go a little deeper in the numbers, consider the plight of 16 to 24-year-old African Americans.  According to recently released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 34.5 percent of Black males in this age range were unemployed in October, more than three times the rate for the general U.S. population.  When young Black women 16-24 are added, with their 26.5 percent unemployment rate, the unemployment rate falls to 30.5 percent.  The Center for Labor Market at Northwestern University, as reported last month by The Washington Post, found that race statistically appears to be a bigger factor in their unemployment than age, income, or even education.  Lower-income White teens were more likely to find work than upper-income Black teens and even Blacks who graduate from college suffer from joblessness at twice the rate of their White peers.
     Incarceration:  Moreover, nearly a third of Black men in their 20s have criminal records, and 12.6% of all Black men between the ages of 25 and 29 are behind bars.  And, in some ways, they are the lucky ones.  Consider for a moment the thousands of Black teenagers and twenty-something’s – some of whom I grew up with in Northeast, D.C. – who get cut down by bullets every single year.  The rise of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s set a new standard for drug-driven violence from which we have yet to recover.  While the homicide rate in the District is a fraction of what it was two decades ago, it is still too high for a civilized society.  And as we cross the District line into Prince George’s Country, Maryland, we see the murder rate at historic highs and trending upward, an ominous occurrence for those who, a decade or two ago saw the County as a welcome refuge from the drug-driven violence that overran the District.
    Declining household wealth and employment rates, coupled with ever-increasing incarceration rates helps frame post-racial society some claim we are now entering. They help create a significant wealth gap that fosters inter-generational poverty.  This is critical to understanding why some do not see us as “post-racial” because the wealth that is achieved through education and employment provides the basis for true equality.  Despite all of the dreary statistics I just provided, it is also true that upper-middle class and wealth African Americans face less discrimination and have more access to the full range of Americana than those with less wealth.

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