(Warning: The following post contains an opinion about racial politics, particularly about the motivations of the voters that elected Obama president. Regarding the motivations voters held in electing Obama, my opinion is neither provable nor dis-provable, and won’t be, unless and until we can objectively peer into the hearts of voters to measure their motivations. Racial motivations are perhaps the number one subject lied about to pollsters. The rest of the post, concerning affirmative action, is not an opinion, but a simple statement of fact, according to the idea of “post-racial” as I have defined it.)
Obama’s election has been supposed to have ushered in a new era of “post-racial” politics and civic discourse. “Post-racial” is one of those terms, like post-modern or post-industrial, that is intended to signify a sweeping new era in thought and behavior, or at least is meant to do so in the manner with which the intelligentsia view the zeitgeist of the day. Regular folks rarely try to pin such hazy descriptions on the ages in which they find themselves. Things just are for them. And for good reason. None of the descriptors captures much in the way of anything real, “post-racial” being no exception. So, if instead of just throwing around clever little summations at cocktail parties, we try to fathom what our words mean, what would a post-racial world look like if it ever came to pass?
The most eloquent statement of how the world should and could deal with racial distinctions comes from the father of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who described a post-racial world (although he never used the term so far as I’m aware) as one in which people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Now we have clarity, not just cocktail-party chatter.
So, did Obama’s election usher in an era of post-racialism? Cynically looking at the election as perhaps the most cynical manipulation of race relations since Abraham Lincoln, I’d have to say no. Obama was elected because of his race, not in spite of it. And his race is not just black–a reality admittedly unimportant to the nearly one hundred percent of blacks that voted for him. Obama’s mixed racial heritage is what allowed him to bridge the gap between the races. He became a chimerical racial candidate into which two of the main competing races of the electorate could pour their hopes and dreams, parts of which included, illogically enough, a move past race-based politics.
In fact, race relations may now be even pricklier than before Obama’s election. In order to maintain white support (who, by the way, are still the vast majority in America, no matter how many times Frank Rich of the New York Times would like to imply otherwise), Obama has had to bend over backward to prove he’s not a black politician in the mold of a Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton, notwithstanding his near-unanimous support from blacks. Such was the dynamic driving the recent high-tech lynching (I’ve always wanted to find a legitimate way to use that term) of Shirley Sherrod that caused her summary dismissal by the Administration, presumably before it even investigated the story. Ms. Sherrod’s speech on her growth as a human being, compassionate toward all races, even after living through the entrails of Jim Crow in the South, was intentionally distorted to try and make her out to be some sort of black racist, refusing to provide Agriculture Department assistance to a white farmer because of his race. The story was patently false, a complete fabrication of reality by conservative blogger, Andrew Breitbart, that would have done a Soviet Commissar proud. But the Administration let the mere whiff of white anger bend it over backwards to prove they would police the racists in their midst. They quickly fired her. When the truth came out, as inevitably happens, Obama was put in the embarrassing position of having to apologize to her, and offer her reemployment. Kudos to Obama for being a man and doing just that. But post-racial? Are you kidding? If anything, we are now uber-racial. The difference now is that Obama’s half-blackness means he thinks it necessary to prove he is not beholden to the black half of his genes. It is the same problem as caused him to expel from his friend list the pastor of the church he attended for two decades.
So no, on the basis of the past election, it’s my opinion that we can’t claim anything approaching Dr. King’s dream so far as post-racialism is concerned. We seem more concerned than ever with racial identity, and not so much with character. Shirley Sherrod’s character was impeccable, yet she nearly lost everything because of her race.
But what of other aspects of American life, culture and governance? James Webb, the Democratic senator from Virginia, has an interesting take in the Wall Street Journal on the elephant in the room (affirmative action) so far as race relations are concerned. He posits two somewhat disparate ideas. First is that poor whites are being unfairly lumped together with other, better situated whites, in the dispensation of government goodies and set asides provided for in affirmative action. Fair enough. Poor whites in the South bore the brunt of the costs of waging the Civil War for their much richer, slave-holding counterparts, and have also suffered the most in the government’s attempts to redress the wrongs inflicted on blacks. Second, he believes that it is unfair for affirmative action benefits to be provided to those of recent arrival, as they did not suffer like the black slaves and their descendants. Also, fair enough. If there is a program to redress the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow, it ought to be focused on those whose ancestors actually experienced it. So he believes that affirmative action should be limited only to native-born blacks such that poor whites will not be unnecessarily disadvantaged relative to folks that voluntarily chose to come to America.
This is all fine and good, except for one thing. If distinctions based on race are ever to be overcome; if we are ever to reach the nirvana of a post-racial age, affirmative action must be completely abolished. The federal government, rapidly expanding its reach and grasp in all spheres of American life, is also the only entity that can and does discriminate on the basis racial identity. Such discrimination is the essence of affirmative action. So long as it exists, there is no hope for a post-racial age.
But what of the blacks that have suffered so much for so long? Would it be fair to force them to compete for admission to colleges and government contracts and any number of other myriad goodies to which they are today helped by affirmative action? Well, yes. There are no official programs prohibiting their competition on the merits. Jim Crow is long dead. Allowing blacks, or any racially-identified group, a hand-up diminishes the accomplishments of all those, like Obama, that could surely compete on a playing field not tilted in their favor. And let’s face the music, no matter much advantage any particular group is provided, there will always be those without the initiative to make anything of it. This is as true of meth-addicted white trailer trash as it is of inner-city gang-bangers.
When the 1965 Civil Rights Act was passed, it specifically barred racial set-asides. The prohibition was essential to its passage among Southern lawmakers, Democrats particularly. Almost before the ink was dry, affirmative action flowered into being. The Warren Supreme Court time and again had to torture the plain meanings of words in the enabling statute to support the program of racial set-asides. (As a law student, reading the Court’s decisions upholding racial set-asides in the face of a law that prohibited them literally made my head hurt. It was impossible to follow the logic, because there was none.) This was at a time shortly following Obama’s black Kenyan father voluntarily coming to the supposedly racially-oppressive United States of America in order to further his education (in Kansas, no less–hardly a bastion of progressive thinking on race or other matters). Obama’s daddy did not need racial set asides to make his way here to pursue a graduate degree. Isn’t it time we finally outlawed consideration of racial heritage in deciding upon the rewarding of benefits? Until the federal government quits discriminating on the basis of race, there can be no post-racial era in the United States, at least not of the type envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr. As cynical as Obama’s deft manipulations of racial politics in the last election were, it is the federal government’s program of affirmative action that ensures we will never get to the day when all that matters is the content of one’s character, and not the color of their skin.