The race issue today

No post-racial society yet, but if we keep talking, we keep moving forward

By Roy L. Brooks
Published by Princeton University Press, $27.95

This thoughtful book arrives at a moment in our national life diametrically opposed to the post- election euphoria of 2008.

Then, the election of Barack Obama had led us to contemplate something called the post-racial society. We were beyond the ugliest expression of racism: lynching, undisguised bigotry, de facto segregation and maybe even murderously silent discrimination.

But were we there yet? Had we achieved a post-racial society? We were or we weren’t, but we were talking about it, a not inconsiderable achievement.

We talked then as if we might really have achieved freedom from most of our prejudiced past. Few of us thought that possible. But we had made progress and nothing could have suggested it more strongly than the election of an African-American president.

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One of the best aspects of the campaign was the discussion. People actually thought about and talked about race. People told reporters they had been certain they couldn’t vote for a black man. Some of them, finally, did. Wasn’t this post-racial?

Those who have studied voting behavior say blacks and whites vote out of self interest. Race may not have had as much to do with someone’s vote as a judgment about which of the two candidates -- the older John McCain or the younger Obama -- would best serve them and the nation.

But now, less than a year later, we address the question of race from a far different perspective. We wonder if Obama’s election and subsequent events has merely unveiled the same old racism that has always been there -- now revealed and amplified in the public square. Are the current trials of the president based largely on the fact that he is an African American?

There was evidence to support that conclusion.

A case in point: South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst during the president’s defense of health care reform. It came in response to Obama’s assertion that illegal immigrants would not be covered by the new medical plans.

Nothing like it had occurred in our history. Why now?

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quickly declared that Wilson’s charge was shorthand. What the congressmen was saying in effect was, “You lie, boy!” She had, she said, resisted concluding that the outpourings of last summer’s town meetings were race-based. No more, she said. Republican leaders had to lean on Wilson to secure an apology.

The gloves were coming off. Former President Jimmy Carter of Georgia said much of the opposition to the president lies in the fact that Obama is a black man.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert said we didn’t need Jimmy Carter to tell us there is racism in America. Actually, we did. Not to know it but to say it. What we needed was a man of stature, a man such as Carter, a man who would be free and willing to address the issue openly. The nation wants a moral leader to establish the moral center, the point around which a national consensus could adhere.

That’s often what presidents do. But it is a difficult responsibility for Obama. He doesn’t want to inflate the size of the opposition; or to suggest that Americans who oppose his health care plan are racists; nor does he want to suggest that his large majority of supporters has been eroded by recovered memory -- as if some people were saying, “Oh, when I voted I forgot I was a racist.” Nor would he want a discussion of race to sidetrack his health care initiative. He has to be a political leader as well as moral leader.

We could scarcely have expected more of a leader on race, after all, than Obama was during the campaign. He responded because the issue had to be addressed. He did it supremely well, appealing to the nation to see it clearly in a historical perspective. To a large extent, we did.

The president was pleased to continue on the belief that the nation had indeed changed. Post-racial might not be an accurate characterization, but aside from a few provocateurs we were happy to have achieved a more solid footing on race.

In his book, Roy Brooks takes issue with the way conservatives and liberals, generally, define the race issue today.

“Conservatives,” he says, typically define what they sometimes term a “black problem” as one of black culture -- a class problem rather than a racial problem. Liberals, he said, tend to see the problem as a “white problem” -- white racism.

Brooks rejects both. Blacks have done much of what conservatives say they should do and yet they lag behind whites in income. As for the liberals: A look at the recent election and at the post-Jim Crow history of the country shows a far less racist America.

Brooks says the problem is what he calls “disparate resources.” Whites just have more of the resources -- tangible and intangible, one assumes -- to succeed in society. Education remains the key to equalizing things, he says.

The author’s systematic analysis of our thinking about race began or intensified when he was a student at Yale University Law School. Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton were there then as was future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. All were welcomed at something participants called the “black table.” It was the sort of place the academy offers serious scholars, a place to weigh and compare different views and to do it civilly and energetically.

Now the Warren Distinguished Professor Law at the University of San Diego, Brooks’ searching analysis of race in society has continued. He does not fail to offer his own solution to the disparate resource issue: Invest, he says, in good teachers.

“Invest in less educational equipment and facilities and more in educational personnel. In the second instance, turn the schools at which these teachers work into KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] Academies teaching their students to develop the character as well as the academic skills to succeed in K-12 and in college.” He said such academies have raised the standardized test scores and overall scholastic achievement of minority students throughout the nation.

For support, he uses the findings of Malcolm Gladwell, a provocative writer who observes that white kids come back to school after summer break with reading scores 15 points higher than when they left. Black kids lose 4 points.

“Virtually all of the advantage white students have over poor students,” Gladwell contends, “is the result of differences in the way privileged students learn while they are not in school.” That is, they read. They grow up surrounded by books, by readers and by the conviction that reading teaches and entertains.

One may say immediately that KIPP will be expensive to expand around the country. No doubt. Think of the expense as reparations -- for slavery and Jim Crow and the unwillingness to acknowledge more fully the devastating impact both have had on black life generation after generation.

I say “to acknowledge more fully” because by fits and starts the damage has been acknowledged. But we must not overflatter ourselves. Our forebears committed crimes for the ages. More than a single election, even one for president, will be needed to move us further forward.

C. Fraser Smith is author of Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland (The Johns Hopkins University Press).

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