No Such Place As Post-Racial America
Please, I beg you, stop using the bankrupt and meaningless term “post-racial!” There’s no such thing as “post-racial.” There’s no place that fits the description “post-racial America.” There’s no “post-racial era.” It’s a term for a concept that does not exist. There’s no there there.
We are not a nation devoid of racial discrimination nor are we a nation where race does not matter. Race and racism are still critical factors in determining what happens and who gets ahead in America. The election of Barack Obama ushered in this silly term and now that he’s begun running for re-election, I’m here to brusquely escort it out of the party called American English because it’s a con man of a term, selling you a concept that doesn’t exist.
“Post-racial” is a mythical idea that should be as painful to the mind’s ear as fingernails on the chalkboard are to the outer ear. It’s an intellectual Loch Ness monster. It is indeed a monster because it’s dangerous. What people seem to mean by “post-racial” is: nowadays race no longer matters and anyone can accomplish anything because racism is behind us. All of that is false. But widespread use of the term lends credence to the idea that all of that is true—I mean, why would we have a term for an idea that’s not real? In that way the lie becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and thus feeds the notion that it’s O.K. to be somnambulant about race or even aggressively dismissive of it.
Race is like weather — we only talk about it when it’s extreme but it’s always there.
If, as “post-racial” suggests, race no longer matters, then we no longer need to think about race or take the discussion of it seriously. In this way the concept becomes a shield against uncomfortable but necessary discussions allowing people to say or think, “Why are they complaining about racism? We’re post-racial.”
This barrier to conversation is dangerous in a nation where race and racism still matter very much. A place where black unemployment is far higher than white unemployment, where profiling and institutional racism and white privilege and myriad other forms of racism still shape so much of life in America. If we don’t need to discuss race then it’s allowed to fester and grow unchecked like an untreated malignant tumor. Race is an issue every American must care about. It’s not a black issue, it’s everyone’s issue. It’s relevant and important for whites because we all live here together and because the issue hurts everyone. If your neighbor’s house is on fire, or gets foreclosed, you have a problem. If your neighbor’s soul is on fire you have a major problem.
Only through being aware of racial disparities and talking about race can we have any chance of forward movement. Because nowadays there are many white people who are not racist, who are perhaps anti-racist, but who still benefit from white privilege without even meaning to. So you may not be racist but still receiving the spoils of racism. That still doesn’t make you racist. But it makes you part of the system and reveals why it’s also your responsibility to interrogate and examine how our society works and be aware of the biases that keep white supremacy functioning. The term “post-racial” is the enemy of communication, understanding and progress. (“Post-racial” is not at all synonymous with “post-black,” a term from the art world that explains modern black identity and the complexity of being black today and is the guiding force of my book “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?”)
“Post-racial” is just one of several terms that only pervert and distort the discussion of race and give people who wish to disrupt the conversation a place to park their ideas. Others include “race card” and “reverse racism” and “race baiter.” The naïve term “race card” always refers to a black person racializing a situation that the person using the term thinks doesn’t need to be racialized. It’s as if race was not part of the situation, and no one was being black or white, and everybody was being color blind, and whistling sweetly, until a black person came along and ruined everything by pointing out race. But race is like weather—we only talk about it when it’s extreme but it’s always there.
Interestingly, “race card” is never used to signify a white person using race—as they do when they use the term race card thus trying to repudiate or silence discussion of race. I wonder why that is. The ludicrous term “reverse racism” has been around for a long time but has gained new force in this era in which people use the term “post-racial.” It seems to function like some sort of rallying cry. “We no longer need be cowed by your accusations of racism! We have the antidote! We have a concept called reverse racism! Whenever you cry racism we’ll retort reverse racism! Then we don’t have to take you seriously! Muahahaha!”
From a linguistic standpoint the term is meaningless: something is either racist or it’s not. Reverse makes no sense. There’s no stipulation within the definition of racism that it need be white to black. Ultimately this is another term that seeks to replace potentially productive discussions of race with noise. “Race baiter” works in the same way, as an attempt to reject the conversation about race.
I suspect “post-racial” was born benignly from the hope that Obama’s electoral success meant that the racial problems that have long plagued America were over. Kumbaya. Surely Obama’s victory revealed something had changed in America, but it was not a signal that we’d reached the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mountaintop world where race no longer matters and equality has been achieved. During the Obama administration “post-racial” and “race card” and “reverse racism” have run amok like gremlins in the language, obfuscating race and making discussions about it harder. America still has so much work to do regarding race and racism and “post-racial” is only making that work harder to do. That’s why “post-racial” and its cohorts must be stopped posthaste.
Thank you, Touré
Originally appeared in the New York Times.