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Race in America: Too Nice to Talk About?

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
October 24, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo

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First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregating black and white children in American schools was unconstitutional. Ten years later, the Civil Rights Act outlawed major forms of discrimination based on race, gender, religion or ethnicity. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, ending widespread practices that disenfranchised African-American voters. Recent history.

During his appearance at Chicago's Grant Park the night he was elected in 2008, the television cameras showed the faces of Americans, not only of African descent, weeping at the sheer historic magnitude of Barack Obama's, and the United States' achievement. For most of us, Obama's election proved Reverend Martin Luther King's promise that "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." That Michele Obama's ancestors, slaves, built the White House she and her family now live in tells the whole story, almost.

The persistence of racism in the United States, virulent and pedestrian, means that half a century since the landmark civil rights accomplishments, President Obama has judged that he cannot be America's "black president." Obama's identity is of course not just "black." His mother was white, his father from Kenya, he was raised in Hawaii,Indonesia, and by grandparents from the heart of middle America. But as the New York Times reported on Sunday, his explicit rejection of identity politics is born not only of his personal blended history. The calculus derives from a desire to advance an agenda of social inclusion for all Americans, including, but not only, for African-Americans. Obama's choice to avoid direct participation in a public discourse on race also reflects the view that showing is better than telling. The Times reports that he and Michele regard their presidency as a chance to model for children of color what is possible for their own future. It's hard to argue with that conclusion.

But, there is a downside. The New York Times also reported on Sunday about the deeply corrosive effects on the heart, souls and identities of African-American kids who attend elite private schools in Manhattan, where despite greater representation, there is little community dialogue about race, class and privilege. One former student told the Times reporter, "the level of silence is astounding." "Everyone," he said, "is too nice to talk about it."

The United States Supreme Court is not so nice, and will soon hear a case that challenges affirmative action at American universities, a practice that has opened doors to achievement for millions of Americans. Look no further than the Tea Party to understand the President's caution. But too much showing and not enough telling may perpetuate a prematurely self-satisfied national myth that with Obama in the White House we are now a post-racial society. Perhaps his re-election, no certainty two weeks out, will change his mind, just a bit.

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