Burying "Post-Racial"

Let's review the past few weeks. The NAACP asked the Tea Party to condemn racist elements in its ranks, and the Tea Party responded with a fake letter from the NAACP to President Abraham Lincoln asking for slavery to be restored. Shirley Sherrod was fired from her job at the USDA over video of a controversial speech that turned out to be heavily edited. A white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, a case that renewed concerns about tensions between police and the marginalized communities they serve. And all of this, incidentally, took place about one year after Cambridge police arrested Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home, and President Barack Obama orchestrated a Rose Garden beer summit to address tensions caused by the incident.

If the Gates episode didn't make it clear, then these new events certainly should: We are horrible at talking about race in this country, and it's time we retire the notion that we are "post-racial."

The roots of post-racialism reach back to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Post-racialism, of course, is the belief that people of color -- particularly those of African descent -- have no need to keep agitating about discrimination or inequality.

But the seeds truly started to sprout in November 2008, when about 69.5 million registered voters went into their respective booths, swallowed hard, and voted for a biracial man from Hawaii. Upon Obama's election, people who should have known better started to speak of racism in the past tense. Somehow, the thinking went, the U.S. had excised centuries of racial prejudice and discrimination. President Barack Obama was the living, breathing, signifying proof.

In the age of Obama, the inelegant pundit writes, we are now closer than ever to becoming a colorblind, post-racial society. The kind of society where, as Chris Matthews might say, you forget that black people are black. "I was trying to think about who he was tonight," Matthews said after Obama's State of the Union address in January. "It's interesting; he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour." So come, let's all share in a very special Benetton moment.

It's not just limited to cable-news hosts. Even the hallowed pages of The New York Times allowed the term. "Racial polarization used to be a dominating force in our politics, but we're now a different, and better, country," wrote columnist Paul Krugman in June 2008. From the moons of Neptune, John McWhorter -- in a story published in The Grio in January, accompanied by the comically clichéd headline "It's official: America is 'post-racial'" in the age of Obama" -- argued that the nation's treatment of blacks is no longer a matter of pressing concern. And in a mostly lighthearted take last week on the universal sex appeal of the Old Spice Guy, The Daily Beast's Tricia Romano quoted former National Public Radio commentator Farai Chideya referring to actor Isaiah Mustafa as "someone who is the modern, urbane, living-in-a-post-racial Fort Greene kind of guy." Because, apparently, even our leading men and fashionable neighborhoods are post-racial today.

In a bit of a twist, some have actually accused Obama of promising a post-racial America through, I suppose, his stirring -- and star-making -- 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention ("There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America") or, perhaps, because of his widespread political appeal despite an unusual name and sand-colored skin.

"Obama's special charisma -- since his famous 2004 convention speech -- always came much more from the racial idealism he embodied than from his political ideas," Shelby Steele wrote the day after the historic election. "But all this policy boilerplate was freshened up -- given an air of 'change' -- by the dreamy post-racial and post-ideological kitsch he dressed it in."

When post-racialism fails, many, like blogger Pam Spaulding, have resorted to relentlessly mocking the concept. All too often, I see reporters and bloggers resort to the use of "post-racial" as an ironic crutch: "Why would minority communities get fewer mortgages than white communities since the financial crisis? What did you say? That couldn't be true in our post-racial America," wrote the Booman Tribune in May.

Regardless, we all know -- or should know -- that this is baloney. Post-racialism is a figment of the imagination. Post-racial America is Utopia. Atlantis. Unicorns. Aerocars. Clean coal. It simply doesn't exist.

By even engaging with the term, we give it staying power and credibility with people -- mostly racists, certain right-wingers, lazy pundits, or other denialists -- who know that it's a lie or hope to convince the clueless that it's true. Tossing around the phrase gives more life to the lie, and for those interested in the truth about racism, it's a self-imposed obstacle. We can't move forward; we first have to debunk the idea of a post-racial America, and then we can have a conversation.

That conversation is necessary, and it takes only a brief swing through Google to see how institutional racism remains part of the American way. The U.S. imprisons a larger share of its black population than South Africa did at the pinnacle of apartheid; a recent study found that racial disparities in health care cost the country $229 billion from 2003-2006; and the income gap between blacks and whites has actually widened over the past three decades.

Our insistence on being ironic, cute, or lazy when talking about race makes it much harder to engage with the very serious ways in which race figures into our lives. We're wasting time, column space, and precious bandwidth. And, unfortunately, the post-racial idea is an excuse for many who are disingenuous, or worse, to ignore these facts and argue there's no more racism to address. For them, post-racialism is merely a cudgel used to quiet those who insist that America deliver on its promise of equality for all its citizens.

Which brings us back to Sherrod, who survived the racially motivated murder of her father as a teenager and spent enough years fighting for restitution for poor black farmers to know the deal. She was collateral damage in a race war, realizing that the NAACP's resolution to the Tea Party prompted her unfortunate moment in the spotlight. The NAACP "got into a fight with the Tea Party," she said, "and all of this came out as a result of that."

It's telling that Sherrod suffered this indignity for being unusually honest about her struggle to move beyond race to help those in underserved communities. Post-racialism, anyone?

Ta-Nehisi Coates had it right when commenting on Gates's arrest: "The only people I ever heard claiming that we were post-racial were cable news hosts setting up the straw man."

I, obviously, can't tell you how to use language. But I excised "post-racial" from my vocabulary a long time ago. I'm not interested in making hard truths easy to digest for racists and syndicated conservative columnists. Playing around with post-racialism only distracts from the issues that matter: wealth disparity, inequality in our criminal-justice system, immigration reform.

There's a lot of work left to be done, but we have to bury this idea first. So let's each grab a shovel. And maybe a thesaurus.

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