Op-Ed: The misguided notion of a post-racial America
By: Lindsey Lupo, Professor of Politican Science, PLNU
UT San Diego, April 19, 2012
On a sizzling summer day, a young black teenager named Eugene Williams sought relief from the heat by floating on a raft with friends in Chicago’s Lake Michigan. Seventy-five yards away, standing on the breakwater, a white man began throwing stones at the boys. When one of the stones struck Eugene in the forehead, he quickly and silently slipped under the water and drowned. His friends swam swiftly to shore and alerted a white police officer, even identifying the stone thrower to the officer. The police officer, however, refused to arrest the white man. In response to the growing crowd, he instead arrested a black man after receiving a complaint of unruliness from a white beachgoer.
The year was 1919, and the incident sparked two weeks of heightened racial tension and outright violence. The reason for the stone throwing was because Eugene and his friends had transgressed an unmarked but well-known racial boundary, a “line” that began on the beach and extended into the water, segregating blacks and whites.
Almost a century later, we are faced with an equally disheartening tale of dismissed pleas for justice in the wake of the killing of an unarmed black teenager – shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer as the teen walked home from a local convenience store. When it took 46 days for charges to be brought against George Zimmerman regarding Trayvon Martin’s death, many were left pondering the disparities of a justice system designed – by the Fourteenth Amendment – to treat each individual equally under the law. I was left wondering how 2012 can feel so much like 1919. In the century between the two cases, the country has ended Jim Crow laws, legally desegregated schools, passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, prohibited racial discrimination in the housing market, enacted numerous affirmative action programs and elected its first black president. Indeed, following President Obama’s election, the rhetoric surrounding his rise to power touted a post-racial society, where Americans had triumphantly pushed through racial barriers and metaphorically joined hands in some sort of Kumbaya moment.
However, such proclamations of colorblindness are not only deceptively idealist, they may also undermine some of the advances made by blacks and other racial minorities in recent decades. Under the misguided perception of a post-racial society, it becomes much easier to blame somebody for his or her tough situation, rather than to engage in the difficult conversations about how much societal work on racial issues remains to be done.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, the belief that we live in a post-racial America is what leads to insensitive and naive comments about his clothing choices, his suspension from school or his alleged drug use. To argue that these things somehow implicate him in his own death is an imprudent way to avoid the deeper discussions regarding the racialized value of life in America.
Thankfully, the term post-racial is increasingly falling out of favor. As the commentator Touré writes in The New York Times, it is a “con man of a term, selling you a concept that doesn’t exist.” He’s right. The color of your skin is still largely a predictor of favor bestowed upon you, slack that is granted to you and attention that is paid to you.
For instance, journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” to describe the disproportionate media attention bestowed upon missing white women and girls, to the exclusion of missing women and children of color. It is a poignant and disheartening reflection of the way in which the lives of some are deemed less significant than those of others.
Some might argue that these cases of racial prioritizing are concentrated in the older generations, while the Millenial generation is the epitome of post-racialism. How then do we explain the recent string of tweets from angered Hunger Games fans – a book whose fan base consists primarily of teens and teens – who discovered that one popular young character, Rue, is played by a 12-year-old black girl in the movie? One tweet read “call me racist but when I found out Rue was black, her death wasn’t as sad.”
Instead of focusing on Trayvon’s hoodie, we should be questioning the larger racial stereotypes that cause us to be indifferent to these deaths, a sentiment that stems from a discounted value placed on their lives. Appalling comments such as these do not feel like a post-racial world, but more like the segregated beaches at Lake Michigan in 1919.
Lupo is an associate professor of political science at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of “Flak-Catchers: One Hundred Years of Riot Commission Politics in America.”