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It’s time to wake up from the myth of a ‘post-racial America’
The Ferguson grand jury ruling is a reminder of how much work we still have to do.
Black lives matter. That’s the referendum we’ve heard over and over again on Twitter in the days leading up to a grand jury verdict in Ferguson, Mo., where police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. On Monday evening, that jury gave Twitter the middle finger by dismissing the charges against Wilson, even though a recent CNN poll suggests that the public at large supports some sort of punishment for Wilson. Only 21 percent of Americans support the jury’s decision to let Wilson walk away a free man; 32 percent believe he should be found guilty of murder.
For those following the news, this verdict might look familiar—and sadly expected. Last summer, a similar ruling was handed to George Zimmerman, a Florida resident who shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in the chest. A neighborhood watch volunteer with a spotty arrest record and a reported history of racial prejudice, Zimmerman reported that Martin “looked suspicious”—thus, Zimmerman acted in self-defense. A jury of six women felt that was probable cause—or, at least, good enough. Was that explanation also good enough for the officers who shot and killed Tamir Rice, a Cleveland 12-year-old whose crime was holding a BB gun? Will it be enough for the Michael Browns who are gunned down every day—or the Fergusons all across America?
The Michael Brown and Tamir Rice incidents are helping to further a necessary discussion about “cop cams,” wearable police surveillance devices that advocates believe will curb America’s police brutality problem. Law enforcement too often serves as a tool to target communities of color, as in the case of New York’s stop and frisk law; the Washington Post reports that NYPD police statistics showed “the vast majority of stops involved people of color, nearly all of whom were found to have not violated any law.” This profiling sticks: While black people are no more likely than any other demographic to be drug consumers, they’re more likely to be questioned and incarcerated for it; people of color make up 90 percent of all prisoners serving time for non-violent drug arrests.
In a blog post for CNN, Tim Wise interrogates these numbers: “How can we be post-racial when people of color continue to be so disproportionately targeted by our nation’s drug laws?” The simple answer is that we’re not, and denying the very real racism that continues to operate as a daily part of American culture—from the cells of our prisons to the color of our Band-aids—will only exacerbate the problem. When the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, this cultural myth of egalitarianism was at the center. By outlawing racial discrimination at the voting booth, the law ensured equal access to the constitutionally guaranteed right of suffrage. Roberts’ court wanted to believe we live in a society where such legislation is no longer necessary; they were wrong.
While the myth of a post-racial society is often seen as benignly deluded, an optimistic misreading of the times, the meme is far more pernicious than you might think. The phrase took off during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, following an unexpected win at the Iowa caucus and a strong showing in New Hampshire; the Economist referred to Obama’s success as a “post-racial triumph,” while the New Yorker waxed lyrically about the dawn of a “post-racial generation,” unburdened by the sins of the past. They’re nice sentiments, but in the six years of Obama’s presidency, such wishful thinking has led to what’s best a denial of How We Really Live Now, a time when we maintain the racial status quo while rolling back the clock on previous generations’ civil rights gains. If we’re post-racial, we don’t need civil rights anymore, right?
While Obama was heralded as “the Great Uniter” in 2008, AP poll data shows our country has become more divided during his tenure as president, though not by his doing. In 2012, researchers found that anti-black sentiment increased by three percentage points during Obama’s first term, up from 48 percent to 51. As Patheos’ Alan Noble describes, it gets worse from here: “When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.” Despite these numbers, a separate survey from Rasmussen Reports found that most Americans actually believed that blacks are more racist than whites.
The AP and Rasmussen data correlates with Harvard polling on public opinion in regards to the Michael Brown shooting. A majority of white respondents (52 percent) reported “confidence” in the Ferguson police investigations, while only 33 percent felt that racism played an important role in Brown’s death. In contrast, 47 percent felt that “race is getting more attention than it deserves.” Even while the public at large supports #JusticeforMichaelBrown, your opinion on the issue depends on which America you live in: one where racism is an active part of everyday life or one where inequality has been overcome. According to 2010 Pew data, a whopping 43 percent of whites felt that blacks are no longer being discriminated against. A lot of people are living in that second America.
In reality, they only think they do. Our racial biases are not only deeply ingrained into our nation’s history (even recent history, as the last person to have lived under slavery died in 1948) but also into the fabric of ourselves. University of Toronto research suggests that racism may be hardwired into the brain: When presented with images of black people and white people performing the same tasks, white subjects’ “mirror neuron system” were more likely to stay active for members of their own race. In fact, reports suggest that when looking at black people, subjects’ “brain activity was so low that it was comparable to looking at a blank screen.”
Jennifer Gutsell, a social psychologist who worked on the study, argues it’s an issue of empathy. Gutsell says, “Previous research shows people are less likely to feel connected to people outside their own ethnic groups.” And according to CNN’s Dean Obeidallah, this lack of empathy means “people are quicker to dismiss the suffering of blacks.” As Obeidallah argues, we must work to confront these realities by engaging with those outside of our own communities. “[W]hen I say we lack racial empathy, I’m not talking about feeling sorry for a race because of their ‘plight,’” he writes. “I mean true empathy, ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’ Racial empathy means being able to honestly contemplate what it would be like to be a member of a different race.”
While a post-racial America pays lip service to racial understanding, the reality is that it serves to further these gaps, simply by erasing race from the conversation. In an essay for the New York Times, Touré reminds us that “post-race” ideology suggests that race isn’t meant to be taken seriously as a talking point. It sounds nice in the same way that all myths sound nice, precisely because they offer a shield protecting us from unpleasant truths, provided we discuss it. Like Bill Cosby dodging a question about his sexual assault allegations, it’s a deflection tactic. As Touré writes, a “post-racial society” asks that the very question of race be “scuttled.”
‘Post-racial’ is just one of several terms that only pervert and distort the discussion of race and give people who wish to disrupt the conversation a place to park their ideas. Others include ‘race card’ and ‘reverse racism’ and ‘race baiter.’ The naïve term ‘race card’ always refers to a black person racializing a situation that the person using the term thinks doesn’t need to be racialized. It’s as if race was not part of the situation, and no one was being black or white, and everybody was being color blind, and whistling sweetly, until a black person came along and ruined everything by pointing out race. But race is like weather—we only talk about it when it’s extreme but it’s always there.
But should erasing race from the conversation even be our goal? What makes living in a “post-racial” world such a strange ideal is both a poor solution to our problems and completely unattainable. As Tré Easton argues in an essay for the Huffington Post, race is such an important part of American life that our forefathers stuffed our racial baggage right into the constitution—it’s just all about how we unpack it. “Our nation was never meant to exist as a post-racial society,” Easton writes. “Everything in this country will always be about race. Even in 2050, when the average face of America is a beautiful multiracial tapestry, race will still be our thing. That’s OK.”
Not talking about something never solved anything—but in starting a conversation on these issues, it’s also about who you talk about them with. A Public Religion Research Institute study found that the social networks of white people are 91 percent Caucasian, which means that they’re less likely to engage in dialogue with someone whose personal experiences might challenge their own views. When it comes to understanding Ferguson, the Atlantic’s Robert. P. Jones argues this is a major problem, one that also played out in responses to Watts, Rodney King, and Trayvon. Jones writes, “The chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.”
This widespread disengagement and silence on the Michael Brown shooting matters because, as Touré explains, we continue to live in a society where race matters, whether we like it or not. “Race is an issue every American must care about,” Touré says. “It’s not a black issue, it’s everyone’s issue. It’s relevant and important for whites because we all live here together and because the issue hurts everyone. If your neighbor’s house is on fire, or gets foreclosed, you have a problem. If your neighbor’s soul is on fire, you have a major problem.” In today’s America, the average white family is respectively 18 and 20 times wealthier than an average Latino or black family; meanwhile, students of color who earn a college degree are nearly half as likely than their white counterparts to find a job. That’s a lot of souls on fire.
In a seminal passage from his essay collection, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin reminds us how crucial it is to listen to these stories, the voices of those who often aren’t heard. “If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class,” Baldwin writes. “One goes to the unprotected—those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most!—and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person—ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.”
Baldwin’s key takeaway was that “ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have,” but as W.E.B. Dubois once argued, “a system cannot fail those it was never designed to protect.” What we need is a new definition of power, a system that doesn’t align with false mythos of racial progress. On Monday night, protesters found strength in numbers; they took to the streets in Ferguson, a demonstration that recalled the marches from Selma to Montgomery or the rebellion at Watts. We’re often said to live in the United States of Amnesia, doomed to repeat history as long as we continue not to learn from its most important lessons. Some of us will choose to keep forgetting, while others will #staywoke. For everyone living in that first America, though, they don’t have much of a choice.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.