Post-Racial Rhetoric & the American Dream

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Written by SpearIt

“Post-racial” is rhetoric for a state of social consciousness that has moved beyond the antiquated trappings of white superiority.  In post-racial discourse, the American cosmic race progresses past the oppressions of old, credence to which is lent the presidential election of Barack Obama; for believers, election of a “black” to the White House symbolized the American Dream achieved.  Closer scrutiny, however, reveals another type of dreaming going on, the fantasy evinced by the term “post-racial.”

In this American Dream, adherents to “post-racial” are a slumber to existing racial woes, with vision stuck on a future that’s yet to be achieved.  The discursive import of “post-racial,” then, is in persuading others that the dream indeed is real; it takes the present and supplants it with something more sublime than the status quo.  Despite the “post-racial” concept’s beauty, in the waking world such a state may well be impossible due to the systemic nature of discrimination.  Today, more is at stake than the force of individual bigotry—discrimination has been institutionalized in law and society—and language is no exception.  Today’s names and labels continue to harbor inequities of old, and show why debates on race and color are fundamentally flawed.

Although Obama’s story is not the only forceful challenge to post-racial ideology, it affords a solid frame to consider the merits and myths.  Without doubt, a sober read of Tea Party rhetoric that Obama “hates America,” that it plans to “take back America” and that Obama is “Muslim” or “Indonesian,” reveals racial politics at full throttle.  Likewise when Henry Louis Gates was arrested, Obama publicly stated that the arresting officers acted “stupidly,” which unleashed widespread fervor and criticism that he had racially sided with Gates.  These episodes indicate that talk of “post-racial” is premature, a point further blasted home by the resignation of Shirley Sherrod after a blogger posted an edited videotape that depicted her as racist.  The redux, a heavy-edit of an innocuous speech, went viral and brought equally swift condemnation by NAACP and government officials who called for Sherrod’s resignation.  Ironic is that the blogger’s posting was itself an inspired reaction to a resolution passed by the NAACP, which called on Tea Party leaders to repudiate those in the ranks who employ racist language in their signs and speeches.  As these headlines illustrate, Obama = drama, and rather than soothe social relations, events surrounding the president have managed only to heighten racial animosity and underscore the prematurity of “post-racial.”

As illustrated, framing Obama as a poster for “post-racial” suffers from various defects, but most fundamentally, the assumption that he is “black” in the first place.  That Obama identified as such on the 2010 Census might raise unsettling questions for post-racial ideologues including whether his response signaled a denial of whiteness or was a fair response given the survey’s purposes; did he have an obligation to report parental lineage as opposed to his racial ideology?  Conversely, what if Obama selected only “white” on the Census?   Perhaps many would find that absurd.  But simply “black” should be equally.  Why the double standard?  Of course the question itself is rhetorical—because rigorous baseline logic is already at play.

Although scholars and scientists have long ago socially and biologically deconstructed “race” as a discursive tool that stratifies and segregates, law and society remain steadfast to the concept.  From this perspective, Obama’s “historic” election proves only a half-truth, since his whiteness has been swallowed by the rule of hypodescent, a whole family history overcome by one-drop ideology.  His “race” to the presidency shows the reinforcement of centuries-old oppression; his decision to select only “black” was merely incidental to public perception, for his appearance made him “black” long before he chose it on the Census.  Everyone’s acceptance of Obama as a black sharply critiques the “post-racial” posture and suggests that regardless of how Obama might have responded on the Census, even if he checked both black and white, Native Hawaiian, it didn’t matter, for in the public mind he was “black.”   Painting Obama “black” provided placating proof of the country’s progress in race-consciousness by electing a black, notwithstanding the relentless reinforcement of one-drop ideology that supported the evidence.

Like “race,” “color” is a premise that undermines attainment of “post-racial” in any meaningful sense.  The labor of “color” is to divide in a stroke that iterates white exclusivity.  The misnomer bases on the assumption that “white” is other than “color,” a proposition that would get a double-take even from a child holding a simple box of crayons who knows that white is part of the set.  Notwithstanding, theoreticians think it fashionable to talk about people “of color” or to identify as a person “of color,” which, among other things, stands for the exclusion of white.  Such speech is less libratory and more the power of racial sedimentation—the very language of public signs that segregated spaces in pre-civil rights America.  These were the words of a racist establishment that coded color with slavery and freedom with whiteness, the repetition of which rears its head every time some individual or group claims to be “of color,” not to mention that groups like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) were conceived on this hierarchical division.

Hindering potential for alliance and bridge-building, the false binary of white/color creates walls where there are none, perhaps palpable as that awkward sentiment of the “white” person who shows up at the People of Color Conference; the potential for alienation is obvious, but only due to doublespeak that pits white against color, as in 1850 Census instructions which dictated a “white” entry be noted by leaving the “color” box blank.  Such schemes and word-wielding might be expected of nineteenth and twentieth century racists who spoke this way to separate drinking fountains, restrooms, restaurants, and more, but for legal theory in the 21st Century, are sorely wanting.

Although attempts at linguistic reform may seem as dreamy as “post-racial” itself, they at least underscore the depth of the problem.  Individually, linguistic praxis might consist of mindfulness in thought, letter and speech, especially for educators; structurally speaking, official mindfulness might refuse to endorse “race” and “color” categorically by striking them from the U.S. Constitution, a symbol to be topped perhaps only by redaction of “Indian” and “tribes” from the same.  Likewise, the Census’ endeavors at data collection should abandon its quest to count by race; this mission might be retired so that it may bask in the light for showing just how unstable “race” has proved over time; it is a conceptual hodgepodge, which by now includes geography (Asian), color (black) and nationality (Chinese), not to mention “American Indian” or those of Spanish “origin,” who are not a “race” by Census standards.  This trend in the Census, like headline reports, suggests a country where racial tensions are growing, not diminishing, rendering “post-racial” as rhetoric with moon-blinking power; yet even if Obama’s election stands as only semi-historic, it nonetheless offers an opportune moment to shake the Sandman of post-racial slumber, clear our heads and start making the dream real.