Talking Race in the Wake of Obama's Inauguration

This Tuesday, we witnessed a milestone in U.S. race relations as Barack Obama was sworn in as this country’s first black president. His inauguration rightly gave us occasion to celebrate our progress, but when the glow from the day wears off, we’re still left with a racial reality that’s far from perfect. Writing for Colorlines, Andrew Grant-Thomas cautions against rosy declarations of a ‘post-racial’ America and offers some well penned advice for (what he hopes will be) a continuing dialogue on race and justice.

Claims that Obama’s election proves we’re beyond race, Grant-Thomas argues, stem from some problematic understandings of race and racism:

The post-racialism claim builds on the all-or-nothing approach Americans often take to making racial judgments. So President Bush’s tepid response to Hurricane Katrina revealed him to be a “racist,” but then his selection of several people of color to prominent cabinet posts proved that he is “not a racist.” Either Obama’s unprecedented achievement affirms what the Wall Street Journal calls the “myth of racism” or it is completely anomalous. Too often, we insist that race mean everything or nothing.

Such pronouncements also assume that racism is only perpetuated by individuals.

Because Americans generally take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we often fail to appreciate the work done by institutions and structures that are racially inequitable. But, in fact, all societies feature institutional arrangements that create and distribute benefits, burdens and interests in society. This often has nothing to do with our conscious intentions.

Consider the example of college admissions. Grades earned by high school students in Advanced Placement (AP) and other college-prep courses may be the single most influential factor in admissions decisions (often more important than overall GPA, class rank, or test scores, and far more important than “diversity” considerations). In a society where white students are much more likely than Black and Latino students to attend high schools that offer such courses, and offer more of them, weighing AP performance heavily in admissions decisions is racially inequitable.

We don’t need to conjure up racist admissions officers to get this outcome.

Grant-Thomas hopes we might take these insights into account in crafting more complex ways of talking about race. To do so, he maintains, we’ll need to acknowledge that it isn’t all or nothing, but more often, “something, but not everything.” We’ll also need to recognize that racial justice means more than treating each other well; it also means addressing systems that favor certain groups over others. These are commitments best made together, because, as he writes in closing, “Barack Obama may prove willing and able to lead the way on the next stage of the journey, but he can’t get us there by himself.”  

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