Post-Racial America? A Debate

I recently participated in a formal debating exercise as part of my school’s ALANA Conference. We were randomly assigned a position to argue, and I was part of the team debating that we have not seen the end of racism just because we have a black president. Since I believe that to be the case, it was easy to debate that position. Below are my notes from the debate. Interestingly, a big part of the debate ended up being about what constitutes ‘institutional’ racism. We know that racism prevails, even at an institutional level. But does the fact that these institutions officially renounce racism and have mechanisms for the redress of grievances mean that racism is no longer institutional? Does it make a difference?

Resolved: We have seen the end of racism in the United States
with the election of the first President of Color

Ulises Mejias: “No, we have not.”

Rebuttal (4 mins):

Racism is a system of group privilege. In the US, this means that white people have constructed a system where they enjoy certain advantages just by virtue of being white, and where they deny these advantages to non-white people.

The election of a black president has not magically dismantled this system of oppression, which has been developed over the course of centuries. In contrast to my opponents’ genuine but misplaced optimism, I would like to offer some plain facts that suggest racism is not on its way out:

  1. Because we still live in a racist society, people of color are the targets of violence. We have seen an increase in race-related hate crimes of 30% since 2002, and Homeland Security warns that we can expect to see an even sharper increase. According to the FBI hate crimes against Latinos increased by 35% from 2003 to 2006. Membership in hate groups has increased more than 40% since 2000. In response to the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed by right wing media figures, we have seen about 250 new nativist groups founded in the past few years.
  2. Because we still live in a racist society, people of color are denied educational opportunities. The hard work of the desegregation movement is often undone through Charter schools that allow white students to escape to better schools while leaving black schools to deteriorate. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the nationwide college graduation rate for black students is only 43%, a full 20% lower than that for white students. And according to a Chronicle of Higher Ed report, problems still persists in how available certain fields of study are to students of color, how many faculty of color are hired or retained, etc.
  3. Because we still live in a racist society, people of color are denied the same level of health care that whites receive. Blacks, for instance, have higher rates of mortality and HIV infection. Black infants are more than twice as likely as white infants to die before their first birthday. When it comes to black babies, the US ranks 63rd place in infant mortality rates. That means that a baby of color in Barbados, Malaysia or Thailand is better off there that in the most powerful nation in the world.
  4. Because we still live in a racist society, people of color are disproportionately punished by our justice system and incarcerated. Blacks comprise 13% of the national population, but 30% of people arrested and 49% percent of those in prison are black. According to Human Rights Watch, one in 10 black men in their 20s and early 30s is in jail or prison. Thirteen percent of the black adult male population has lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement.

If these figures are not plain evidence that we live in a racist society, I don’t know what is.

Constructive Argument (5 min):

In my previous argument, I stated some shocking statistics that demonstrate that we still live in a racist society. But is it the case, as my opponents are arguing, that the election of the first black president is bound to start changing our racist reality?

Obama may have changed the face, literally, of power in this country. But it is my contention that he has done little and is willing to do little to challenge the racism that permeates our social institutions.

As evidence, we only need to look at a single act of Obama, and act that speaks volumes: Earlier this year, the first black president of the US decided to boycott the UN Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. This bears repeting: Our first black president decided not to participate in a conference on racism organized by the UN.

Much has been made about the claims that he did so because of the alleged anti-Semitism that marked an earlier conference. Journalist Naomi Klein has exposed the lies behind these allegations in her recent article on Harper’s Magazine.

The real reason why the US and many other countries decided to pull out of Durban is very simple: before 9/11 cut its momentum, the Durban conference had emerged as a global forum for addressing the historical injustices of the slave trade.

It is not a secret that much of the wealth from which whites benefited and continue to benefit was built on the enslaved labor of blacks and other peoples of color. Racial oppression is a business model, and it has paid handsome dividends to whites.

Despite the fact that we see the occasional wealthy black celebrity, the truth is that race and poverty are undeniably linked in our society. For instance, during the current recession, unemployment has increased four times faster among blacks than among whites in New York City. According to sociologist Dalton Conley, the average black family has only one-eighth the net worth of the average white family in the US. To add insult to injury, poor black people are more likely to fall prey to predatory practices, as evidenced by the fact that in Obama’s home city of Chicago, black families acquired subprime mortgages at a rate four times higher than white families (Klein). In Baltimore, the bank Wells Fargo has admitted to intentionally marketing subprime loans to blacks through their churches.

Institutionalized racism is about the unpaid debt that the rich owe to the poor. If we want to end racism, we must pay back what was stolen through slavery. There’s no statue of limitations when it comes to crimes against humanity, as Nurenberg made clear. If we can bail out failed banks and companies with billions of tax dollars, why can’t we make reparations to the people who have not succeded because of our racism? We are not talking about individual handouts here, coming from your pocket! We are talking about investing in schools, hospitals and infrastructure. Precisely the kinds of things we failed to do after Katrina, which is why I believe racism is far from over.

Throughout all this, Obama has remained silent and inactive on the race issue, except when it can benefit his agenda (as when he needed to get out of the Reverend Wright mess), or when it absolutely cannot be avoided (as in the Gates affair). Other than that, the White House has encouraged only polices that are ‘race-neutral.’

But all the race-neutrality in the world is not making a difference. Thanks to the right-wing fanatics that populate our media, Obama’s presidency has in fact sparked a strong racist reaction. Not just more openly racist imagery targeting the Obamas and other people like Sonia Sotomayor populates the Internet, but also a new vocabulary to disparage Obama has emerged: instead of the n-word, people use words like socialist, Muslim, and foreign-born to mask their racism.

Racism is not over, nor do we have a president who has been willing so far to tackle the problem.

Final Argument (3 min):

Since Obama’s election, there’s been a lot of talk about a ‘Post-racial America.’ The term ‘post’  implies that there was a time when we recognized that this was in fact a racist society. Are we in a rush to bypass that realization by labeling ourselves a ‘post-racial’ society?

Modern racism is not just about individual white people going around consciously feeling superior to people of color, although I’m sure some of them do. Modern racism is institutionalized racism: it’s about social inequalities being replicated through our schools, churches and prisons; through our laws, government programs, and insurance premiums.

These inequalities are replicated because we have refused to deal with the very system of oppression on which this country’s wealth was formed. We continue to perpetuate those injustices when we pretend that a single event, like the election of a black man to the office of the presidency, can undo the damage.

In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that people who see in Obama’s election a sign that we have moved beyond racism are not helping to promote a meaningful dialogue on racism, but are instead inadvertently delaying it.

Unfortunately, we cannot end racism by not talking about it. White liberals (parents, teachers, bosses) want us to be color-blind. They think it’s a good thing to not see color, even though it defines us. They keep insisting that when they look at us people of color, they do not see the hue of our skin (which in my case, as a white Latino, is easy to do). They point to Obama as a sign that they are willing to entrust our nation to someone regardless of the color of their skin.

We have not seen the end of racism because we have not seen the end of the silence that people of color must maintain when confronted with talk about color-blindness and race neutrality. To even talk about racism makes one comes across as angry, and we have learned that we must quiet our anger over historical and institutional injustices in order to be accepted in white society. Obama’s greatest asset is his smile, because it signals he is not angry.

The election of Obama has not ended racism, it has merely given us a model of how to be silent. As the late Latino activist Juan Santos wrote during Obama’s election: “We stay silent, as a rule, on the job. We stay silent, as a rule, in the white world. Barack Obama is the living symbol of our silence. He is our silence writ large. He is our silence running for president.”

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1 Comment

  1. Brilliant argumentation, as usual. It’s difficult to try and add some comments, but let me try.
    Does anyone recall that Barack Hussein is only milk-coffee? There has been a joke going around Spain lately about how some of our rightwingest political figures do actually look blacker than Obama. Check it out here:

    Myself I do not believe in positive discrimination of any kind (neither negative, ‘course), so I support a race neutral policy if it goes along and equally centered racism fighting policy which I think every state should have in place since WWII.

    The case of Semenya’s olimpic hermaphroditism is just another facet of how diffuse our artificial mental barriers are sometimes, in race just as in gender.

    If you want to watch a pretty good moder satire of Apartheid, go and see Peter Jackson’s produced film “District-9” where they give another turn to the affair where aliens park their UFO over South-African slums, in a neat metaphore to reflect upon.

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