Over the past four years, it had become increasingly difficult to mount a public discussion about how racial bias continues to permeate our society, North and South, in boardrooms and newsrooms. Despite glaring signs of racial segregation in our schools, prisons, and pews, many commentators—including some scholars—idealistically clung to President Obama’s 2008 election as evidence of a new, postracial era.
John H. McWhorter, a linguist and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, was among the first to proclaim that Obama’s 2008 election proved that we had moved beyond race as a major impediment for black people. His optimism was widely embraced by the media.
In academe, however, some scholars continued to deconstruct the subtle manifestations of racial bias. Three decades after publication of his The Declining Significance of Race (1978), the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, in More Than Just Race (2009), acknowledged how structural factors, including discriminatory laws, and policies in hiring, housing, and education, contributed to the continuing concentration of African-Americans in impoverished urban areas.
In Can We Talk About Race? (2007), the psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum highlighted the adverse impact that school resegregation, racial attitudes, and curriculum have on black achievement. The legal scholar Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow (2010), illuminated how the selective application and enforcement of drug laws have resulted in the mass incarceration and permanent second-class citizenship of millions of black men.
Now, as President Obama is set to begin his second term, after an election marred by blatant forms of black and Latino voter suppression that evoked post-Reconstruction practices, our blinders have been yanked aside, exposing claims of a postracial nation as premature.
What can be said of the spectacle of prominent men reduced to “birthers” demanding that the nation’s first black president reveal his birth certificate and college transcript? Or state officials and a defeated presidential candidate openly lamenting the strength of black and Latino voter turnout? Residents of some states have called for secession rather than face the reality of a multiracial America. White college students in Mississippi rioted over Barack Obama’s re-election.
Even as many of us celebrate the symbolic achievement of that re-election, our dreams of a postracial America remain just that: lofty dreams, dimmed by the reality of deeply embedded attitudes and yawning racial disparities.
Further bursting the postrace bubble are exit polls showing that Obama was re-elected with 39 percent of the white vote and 80 percent of the nonwhite vote. (Among white voters ages 18 to 29, Obama lost, 44 to 51 percent). On matters of race, the glass is both half-full and half-empty; we have not yet overcome.
For those of us in academe, the media-mediated backlash offers invaluable teachable moments, whether for the historian who can draw parallels to our sullied past or the political scientist who can illuminate the perils that demagoguery and a broken electoral system pose to our democracy. It’s a fruitful time for those of us in journalism education to reflect on ways to combat a rising tide of media that seem more interested in fanning racial discord than in enlightenment, and to consider what might have been had private citizens not exposed the utterances of a candidate who, behind closed doors, disparaged those he sought to represent.
And we can take heart in the triumph of democracy and the resolve of citizens who stood in lines for hours to cast their ballots; knocked on their neighbors’ doors or sorted through multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns and news articles to ferret out the truth about our leaders. We can celebrate the ability of a growing number of Americans to judge a man by the content of his character, and not the color of his skin. But we must not ignore scores of others denied equal opportunity.
We must take stock of the lessons offered by this election and overcome the tendency to gloss over unpleasant truths or reduce complex racial realities to pithy, reassuring slogans. While the notion of a postracial nation is soothing and enables some people to hasten their distance from a painful past, it also allows us to ignore troubling inequities that a race-conscious sensibility might discern.
In short, denial of the salience of race—which is rooted in entrenched attitudes, demagoguery, and fear—will only delay the healing, and will allow a centuries-old cancer to continue to fester.
Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at New York University.