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The New York Sun


Racism in Retreat

June 05, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

A year and a half ago, often I was sweetly dismissed when I said that Barack Obama was possibly on his way to the White House and would certainly trounce Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

“You don’t know what they’ll do to him,” they’d say. As often as not, the idea was that America could not seriously support a black man for its highest office.

I didn’t get this. The America I live in today does not seem as deeply stamped by bigotry as these people seemed to think. It seemed as if, on this topic, I was talking to people who had woken up after 25 years and didn’t know how the country had changed. Couldn’t they see that this man’s color was only going to help?

Well, here we are. Are there some bigots? Of course. Did they, or any purported instance of “racism” during the campaign, keep Barack Obama from the nomination?

His victory demonstrates the main platform of my race writing. The guiding question in everything I have ever written on race is: Why do so many people exaggerate about racism?

This exaggeration is a nasty hangover from the sixties, and the place it has taken as a purported badge of intellectual and moral gravitas is a tire — block on coherent, constructive sociopolitical discussion.

Here’s a typical case for what passes as enlightenment. On my desk(top) is an article from last year’s American Psychologist. The wisdom imparted? To be a person of color these days is to withstand an endless barrage of racist “microaggressions.”

Say to someone, “When I look at you, I don’t see color” and you “deny their ethnic experiences.” You do the same by saying, “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority,” as well as with hate speech such as “America is a melting pot.” Other “microaggressions” include college buildings being all named after straight, white rich men (I’m not kidding about the straight part).

This sort of thing will not do. Why channel mental energy into performance art of this kind?

Some may mistake me as implying that it would be okay to stop talking about racism. But that interpretation is incorrect: I am stating that it would be okay to stop talking about racism. We need to be talking about serious activism focused on results. Those who suppose that the main meal in the aforementioned is to decry racism are not helping people.

At this point, if racism was unattended to for 10 years, during that time it would play exactly the same kind of role it does in America now — elusive, marginal, and insignificant.

Note that I did not say that there was no racism. There seems to be an assumption that when discussing racism, it is a sign of higher wisdom to neglect the issue of its degree. This assumption is neither logical nor productive. I reject it, and am pleased to see increasing numbers of black people doing same.

Of course there is racism. The question is whether there is enough to matter. All evidence shows that there is not. No, the number of black men in prison is not counterevidence: black legislators were solidly behind the laws penalizing possession of crack more heavily than powder.

In any case, to insist that we are hamstrung until every vestige of racism, bias, or inequity is gone indicates a grievous lack of confidence, which I hope any person of any history would reject.

Anyone who intones that America remains permeated with racism is, in a word, lucky. They have not had the misfortune of living in a society riven by true sociological conflict, such as between Sunnis and Shiites, Hutus and Tutsis — or whites and blacks before the sixties. It’d be interesting to open up a discussion with a Darfurian about “microaggressions.”

To state that racism is no longer a serious problem in our country is neither ignorant nor cynical. Warnings that such a statement invites a racist backlash are, in 2008, melodramatic. They are based on no empirical evidence.

Yet every time some stupid thing happens — some comedian says a word, some sniggering blockhead hangs a little noose, some study shows that white people tend to get slightly better car loans — we are taught that racism is still mother’s milk in the U.S. of A. “Always just beneath the surface.”

Barack Obama’s success is the most powerful argument against this way of thinking in the entire four decades since recreational underdoggism was mistaken as deep thought. A black man clinching the Democratic presidential nomination — and rather easily at that — indicates that racism is a lot further “beneath the surface” than it used to be.

And if Mr. Obama ends up in the White House, then it might be time to admit that racism is less beneath the surface than all but fossilized.

I know, I don’t know what they’ll do to him now. Let’s just wait and see.

Original Source:



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