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Forbes

 

The End Of Racism?

November 05, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

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"It's amazing to me—almost unreal," Representative John Lewis said about Barack Obama's impending victory a few days ago.

Not to me. I lost the ability to even conceive of Barack Obama not becoming president two Aprils ago.

Yet what many have told me I was missing was The Role That Racism Still Plays In This Country. For months now, for example, newspaper stories quoting working-class whites refusing Obama their vote because of his color have been showing us what is still "out there." And never mind polls where whites surmised that their friends wouldn't vote for a black man, subconsciously associated black faces with negative terms, and so on. The big bad "out there."

All of this has been a manifestation of how people "in here" consider it a duty to stress that racism is not entirely extinct, despite Condoleezza, Tiger, and the massive black middle class. The implication is that we seek an America in which none of us even notice color.

The question is whether the total eclipse of racism is either possible or necessary. It is neither, and Barack Obama's victory is a lesson in how the word racism has drifted beyond its core meaning into something more calisthenic than proactive.

It was one thing when legalized segregation and disenfranchisement were outlawed in the mid-60s. This was a massive undertaking, but people devoted their lives—sometimes literally—to making it happen.

It was something else when, in the wake of this, racism became socially taboo in most segments of American society. Sure, there are lapses. But anyone who thinks there has been anything short of a seismic shift in America's racial relations since the 60s should take a look at Mad Men. The very fact that it is news that there remain people who wouldn't vote for a black man shows that we live in a different world than 40 years ago.

The new frontier, however, is apparently people's individual psychologies: Not only must we not legislate racism or socially condone it, but no one is to even privately feel it.

The problem is we can't entirely reach people's feelings. The social proscription has changed a lot of minds, especially of younger people who never knew the old days. But an America where nobody harbors racist sentiment? The very notion goes against everything we know about human hardwiring: Distrust of the other is inherent to our cognition.

Psychology has provided us with no method for rewiring brains to eliminate that. After describing one of countless studies revealing subliminal racial bias, Nicholas Kristof recently intoned "there's evidence that when people become aware of their unconscious biases, they can overcome them."

Oh, really? "Can," OK—but how often do they? How do we reach everybody? Do we mean overcoming bias so thoroughly that a test looking for what's "out there" would not still reveal it? It's a utopian pipe dream.

Now, if this racism of the scattered and subliminal varieties were the obstacle to achievement that Jim Crow and open bigotry were, then we would have a problem. But yesterday, we saw that this "out there" brand of racism cannot keep a black man out of the White House.

Might it not be time to allow that our obsession with how unschooled and usually aging folk feel in their hearts about black people has become a fetish? Sure, there are racists. There are also rust and mosquitoes, and there always will be. Life goes on.

I know—what about "societal" racism? Well, if we can now relax about the backward folk "out there," then maybe Obama in the White House can help open up an honest discussion about the role racism does not play in black communities' problems.

Obama has come in for some criticism for not putting forth a "black" agenda—i.e., one designed to combat "racism" in various ways. It's because he knows that paradigm has no useful application to our times.

The harsher penalization of crack than powdered cocaine that has put so many black people in jail needs revision, but it was not created by racists: The Congressional Black Caucus helped pass it. Newark's schools are not failing because of racism, when New Jersey funds them as liberally as schools in the suburbs and most of the teachers and staff are black.

America has problems and our new president knows it. However, is America's main problem still "the color line" as W.E.B. DuBois put it 105 years ago? The very fact that the president is now black is a clear sign that it is no longer our main problem, and that we can, even as morally informed and socially concerned citizens, admit it.

There is nothing at all "unreal" about this. It is, after all, what we were supposed to be working toward. We must embrace it.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/opinions/2008/11/05/obama-racism-president-oped-cx_jm_1105mcwhorter.html

 

 
 
 

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