A Post-Racial America: A Dream Deferred
Even before President Barack Obama ascended to his current office in 2009, the concept of a post-racial America was at the forefront of the national discussion on race and politics. As a few controversial Super Bowl ads and the backlash after Richard Sherman’s remarks have shown us, the road to equality in the U.S. is still a long and slow trip.
The talks began on the campaign trail during the 2008 presidential elections – a two-part discussion that jumped from voting district to voting district all over the United States: (a) Was this country “ready” for a black president, and (b) does the election of a black/African-American/bi-racial president mean that we’ve transcended the barriers of race that have divided this country dating back to its founding?
The first question was a ridiculous notion to me – as though equal footing in a presidential election should be eased into at another person’s convenience. The second question, while requiring more nuance, has answered itself over and over again since Obama’s election on November 4, 2008: we are nowhere near a post-racial America, and only part of that change involves the political arena.
When it comes to any solid relationship, whether it’s about business, friendship, or romance, there are certain traits that must be established for the union to function: the relationship should foster trust and respect for all parties involved, everyone in the relationship should benefit by the union, and there must be understanding and a willingness or work with or compromise with your partner for the sake of the relationship. Our culture at present is more conducive to a divisive relationship – our politicians don’t trust each other, the people don’t trust the politicians for which they vote, and all of this leads to a gridlocked Congress that had to shut down for 16 days just to get some progress on a budget for the country.
The racial element of politics does a very good job of dividing our culture – and if you don’t believe me, ask a black person about black people who choose to join the GOP. Meanwhile, in his 2012 re-election, President Obama won 93 percent of the black vote – a decrease from the 96 percent he captured in 2008. In the wake of a perceived slight by some members of the black social and political communities, Obama had to remind everyone in a 2012 Black Enterprise interview of his responsibilities to the whole country, not just one race or socioeconomic class.
“I want all Americans to have opportunity. I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America … I’ll put my track record up against anybody in terms of us putting in place broad-based programs that ultimately had a huge benefit for African American businesses.”
Even when politics are removed from the discussion, race relations in the U.S. are always seemingly one news story away from exploding into something closer to a race riot. Nothing in the past few years has illustrated that more abundantly than the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and the subsequent trial and acquittal of his attacker, George Zimmerman. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll taken in July 2013, three-quarters of black respondents would have found Zimmerman guilty of murder or manslaughter, compared to just 34 percent of white respondents. The stark contrast in reactions harkened back to the days of the 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson on two counts of murder.
Another recent example came during the Super Bowl, when a furor began over a multilingual version of “America the Beautiful” sung during a Coca-Cola commercial. Instead of focusing on the diversity of the country, the uproar began on the singing of a national standard in anything but English. Another sore spot for some was a Cheerios commercial depicting an interracial family – not that General Mills has made any secret of their progressive stances. The fact that a segment of the country is so uncomfortable with a reflection of the country’s diversity shows the work that we have ahead of us to become a “post-racial” nation.
Seattle Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman’s now-infamous remarks after the NFC Championship Game in January seemed to aggravate the open wound that is race relations in this country. His postgame bravado earned him the label of a “thug” by columnists – both black and white – all over the country. Sherman turned the conversation on its ear, saying that the word “thug” is a common substitute for a much more insidious word that won’t be put into print here. The debate around the implied or explicit use of a racial slur is enough to send the media into a frenzy, and these issues seem to do nothing but divide us further. Instead of attempting to understand the situation of a player who just made a game-winning play to send his team to the championship game in his sport (and the adrenaline that comes with all that), we judge and decide that he’s unprofessional, or worse.
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When it comes to race relations, politics, and bringing our society together, we seem to miss a very simple point: our first response can’t always be to judge someone. No matter the differences between two people, whether it’s Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, or Richard Sherman and Tom Brady, or John Boehner and Harry Reid, if we aren’t starting from a place that attempts to understand others, we’re bound to remain in the same divisive places, and the dreams of a post-racial America will remain just that. While the rule of law can guarantee equality from a legal standpoint, our mindsets must change, or we may be doomed to repeat some of the nasty chapters of history that compose race relations in America.
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