My ethics class has long featured a section on racial equality and yesterday gave me the opportunity to discuss the subject in a new light. Not surprisingly, my students were quit pleased with Obama’s victory and they felt quite optimistic. However, they were also realistic about what his election means.
To focus the discussion, I used Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech. In his speech, three of the problems he mentions are segregation, discrimination and poverty. As the class discussion revealed, while segregation and discrimination are now illegal, they still remain serious problems. After all, it is possible to segregate and discriminate in ways that do not break the law. For example, while African-Americans make up a disproportionately large percentage of the the prison population in America, they make up a disproportionately small percentage of those in leadership positions (political, academic, and business). Poverty is, of course, still a concern and wealth still seems to follow racial lines in the United States. These problems and other factors clearly indicate that America is not post racial.
Not surprisingly, racism and concerns about race cross racial lines. Despite the fact that I have been a professor at Florida A&M University since 1993 and have written extensively about race, some people made it clear on November 5th that they assumed I had racist tendencies simply because I am white. I was (once again) informed of the racism of white America and how it was thought that white America would not permit a black man to be President.
My responses were the obvious. First, it seems racist to assume that a person is racist simply because s/he is white. This is similar to assuming a black person uses crack simply because he is black. Second, to talk about “white America” and making assumptions about how all whites think is to group people into a stereotypical class based solely on race. This certainly seems to be racist. Just as blacks are individuals with their own views, whites are also individuals with their own views. Third, obviously “white America” was, in general, just fine with electing a black man President.
Initially I was slightly surprised that people would make such remarks about whites and “white America.” After all, Obama had just been elected President and had spoken about the need to get beyond race. Of course, a moment’s reflection revealed the obvious: his election has been a major milestone, but people do not change quickly. Many people, regardless of their color, are still very much concerned about race. As such, while we are heading towards a future in which race will matter less and less, we are still here in the now. And now race still matters.