WASHINGTON, January 18, 2016 — The election of Barack Obama to the White House was a milestone. President Obama wasn’t just America’s first black president, but the first black chief-of-state in the Western world.
In 2008, the United States was already beyond the worst of its racist past. We’d had black Supreme Court justices, a black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, black Secretaries of State, and black men and women elected to state and national offices across the country. The election of a black president by a clear majority of the electorate was still remarkable.
What it wasn’t was the end to racism, nor the end to our preoccupation with race.
President Obama didn’t heal the racial divide in America. He didn’t open a new era of racial dialogue. He didn’t even tone down the noise over race. The noise is louder, the dialogue seems nastier, and the divide seems as wide as ever.
The Obama Justice Department, overseen by black attorneys general, squats like Shelob over a justice system that incarcerates blacks at a much higher rate than it does whites. Blacks have lost ground economically in the last ten years even faster than whites; the black poverty rate rose from 25.8 percent in 2009 to 27.2 percent in 2014, and median income in minority households fell by 9 percent, almost double the decline for all Americans. Median wealth in non-white households has fallen 20 percent since Obama took office, down to $18,100; it’s risen 1 percent for white households, up to $142,000.
The president isn’t the only or even the most powerful agent affecting our economy, but the election of a black president wasn’t a harbinger of good times for black America.
“Race” is an almost meaningless term in biology. The genetic difference between me and a black man of my general build and height is probably less than the difference between me and your average blond-haired, blue-eyed Swede, with whom I’m lumped as “white.” Race is a collection of characteristics—skin pigment, hair texture, physical features—each of which has its own distribution within and across races. We identify people by race according to a combination of things, not just one feature.
It’s usually a pointless exercise. The concept of race should go away. It doesn’t stick around because it represents biological reality, but because it’s politically useful.
But for whom?
That changes from place to place and time to time. Being identified as one race or another comes with social, economic and political costs and benefits.
Modern race and gender theorists talk about “privilege” and “intersectionality.” The ugly jargon deals with something very simple: Each of us has advantages and disadvantages that we don’t earn, and sometimes we’re advantaged in one way at the same time we’re disadvantaged in another.
Some of this is trivial. Smart people have advantages that stupid people don’t have. Beautiful people have advantages over ugly people, thin people over fat, athletic people over clumsy people, tall people over short. People with loving parents have advantages over people with cruel or indifferent parents, and all else equal, rich parents can get you well ahead of people who have poor parents.
That’s life, and thank God. A completely leveled, Harrison Bergeron world would be a nightmare.
It gets better. Researchers have found that the county where you’re born and raised comes with advantages and disadvantages in terms of future income and how likely you are to marry. The school system where you’re educated will have an impact on whether and where you go to college and how well you do there. You’re privileged if you were born in Seattle rather than Selma, regardless of your race and gender.
For anyone to stand and say, “I got where I am on my own, with no help from anyone or anything” is absurd. Your work and your character have a lot to say about where you’ll end up in life, but there are better people who worked harder who have done financially worse, and worse people who have worked little who have done financially far better than you have. Luck and circumstances—“privilege”—play a part.
On average, it’s a large part. It touches on everything from the large—income and the success of our children—to the small—the constant, petty irritations and indignities inflicted on us by police, clerks, strangers on the street, the TSA.
Race matters. Of course it matters. It matters because we are who we are—Homo sapiens—and race, gender, or some other category will always matter. We can’t wish eons of evolution and human biology away in a Martin Luther King-inspired paroxysm of hand-holding and kumbaya.
Power, status and wealth aren’t a positive-sum game. If everyone is special, no one is. If everyone gets a gold star, gold stars are worthless. We measure our wealth by those around us, not by our absolute circumstances. We can never keep up with the Joneses, because there will always be another Jones who has what we don’t, but we can’t stop comparing ourselves to them.
This isn’t a call to despair or to just give in to the reptile part of our brain that hisses, “get more, stomp on the competition, find someone in worse shape than you so you can feel better.” But we should recognize that if we expect a post-racial, post-gender, post-competitive society, not just soon, but ever, we’ll be disappointed.
What’s left is to try, once in a while, to be better than we were and to try, as hard as it is, to treat others as we wish to be treated. We should also recognize that attempts to make ourselves feel better, more special, or more pleased with ourselves as part of a group will eventually fail, promoting as they do the type of thinking that has caused so many of our social problems in the first place.
Portland Community College has designated April “Whiteness History Month.” The goal isn’t to celebrate “whiteness” or to make white people feel better about themselves. The PCC’s Cascade Campus Diversity Council seems to believe that white people are already far too self-satisfied, having found that whiteness is “embedded in the overall college climate.”
The goal is to deconstruct whiteness and examine race and racism through whiteness, with an eye to eventually “dismantling whiteness.” With the help of programs like Whiteness History Month, PCC hopes to “create a nationally renowned culture for diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
They’re deluded idiots.
The PCC’s CCDC treats whiteness as an ideology, which implies that blackness is also an ideology. Well, if race isn’t really biological, why not? If Rachel Dolezal wants to be black, let her be black. If your red-haired, blue-eyed daughter wants to adopt the persona of a wise Latina, let her apply for Hispanic-student scholarships.
Don’t be surprised if she’s accused of appropriating someone else’s culture or race. We don’t just get to categorize ourselves; others want to categorize us, too. I can claim blackness until the cows come home, but at PCC, I’ll still be considered white. The more I quote MLK, the whiter I’ll be, because it takes a special (white) kind of racism to natter on about color-blindness.
Our thinking on race, even—especially—among the campus theorists and warriors of race, is hopelessly confused and contradictory. Race isn’t biological; it’s a social construct, a political category and an ideology, but you can’t choose your race; attempts to ignore race are just attempts to freeze privilege in place; we have to fight for group privileges to erase group privileges. And on it goes.
Perhaps as an answer to the social ills that beset us, we can’t really do much better than the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want them to treat you. Your mother had another good answer: good manners. And the best good manners aren’t those you show to people you like, but to people you don’t like.
These things can’t be legislated, so they’ll never be popular as approaches to our racial ills. But MLK was right: Until we can treat each other as individual human beings according to the content of character, we’ll go around and around in circles, clinging to our race and our tribe, going nowhere at all.