Are we living in a post-racial society? Do we want to be? Is it possible? Ideal? Is this question ridiculous? Why are people so obsessed with race? What do Obama, the media's perception and portrayal of him and his various racial attributes, native americans, the media's perception and portrayal of them, sports, perception of racial issues as white/black versus arab/hispanic/asian, Slumdog Millionaire, and Attorney General Holder say about our society and it's relation with race?
To many a post racial society is paradise. Now that we've elected a half black president we must congratulate ourselves for getting beyond centuries of slavery and oppression and celebrate at the table of brotherhood. This is an appealing idea. There are two problems with this - (1) it is denial - there are a hundred million people who don't think the same way - and (2) it denies the beauty and possibilities that come from playing with differences, no matter how arbitrary.
What does a Post-Racial society look like? It looks like a Post-Handedness society – one where no one notices, cares about, remarks on or makes significant choices based on whether they or anyone else is left or right handed. It means ‘race’ as a concept does not exist. We don’t think or speak of it except as an archaic set of almost meaningless distinctions which have no real relevance to a modern society like ours. It means genuine freedom from oppression and violence for anyone in regards to things as silly and meaningless as skin color, ethnicity, ancestry, heritage or affiliation. It also sadly means new forms of oppression have grown in Race’s stead, finding new ways to divide people between Good and Bad, Human and Subhuman.
A couple of weeks ago as I was driving around I heard a quiz question on NPR: before Michelle Obama what African American woman came closest to being first lady? The answer surprisingly was Teresa Heinz Kerry who was born to Portuguese parents in Portuguese East Africa, at the time that area was a colony of Portugal, It is now the independent nation of Mozambique. The argument can be made that Ms. Kerry is more African than either of the Obamas having been born on the continent. However, accepting a privileged white-skinned woman as an “African American” challenges most of our perceptions of race in America.
If you look at public opinion, it seems that we have departed drastically from the Jim Crow era mentality. For example, in a recent poll, 77% of Americans said they approve of two people of different racial background getting married, whereas just 5% shared this sentiment in the 1950’s. So you might expect that the percentage of interracial marriages would parallel this trend in public opinion? But it does not. According to a recent study, 95% of all marriages are same-race unions, a far lower number than random choice would predict. Americans are saying one thing but doing another.
But viewing this election as any more than a stepping stone would detract from the great distance we still need to travel to reach a time when the sight of another persons’ differing skin tone will be cause for excitement and wonder rather than markers of social or intellectual status. What we are looking for is not the removal of “race” as inferred by the term “Post Racial Society”, but rather the intelligence to recognize the wonder of it. Color and language differences allow for variety in culture, which is essential for humanity to keep evolving.