Affirmative Action is soon to be challenged once again, and I find the debate around it particularly troubling. Not necessarily because of the political implications surrounding the debate, but because it begins to expose just how little people understand the complexities of Race in this country. The conversation around Affirmative Action usually begins to devolve into questions of white entitlement, the idea of our country being a meritocracy (we really need to get over that), and sometimes you just get some harsh and prejudiced crap that materializes in the anonymity of Internet comments.
But I am not here to debate the validity of Affirmative Action, but rather what I think the re-emergence of the debate symbolizes. Essentially, the way we talk about race in this country is starting to be destabilized, and it’s time that we shift up our game plan. Back in 2008, if you’ll recall, we got us a Black president—and that launched into a discussion of “are we ‘post-racial’?,” and all the academics and all the kings’ men—raised a defiant and distinct “NO,” and went about their daily business.
But I think we missed a crucial opportunity to engage in an important discussion. It’s not enough to say that “no we aren’t in a post-racial society because of [insert numerous societal injustices and disparities here]” and then expect that to be convincing for our nation. Because, honestly, the position of presidency is a pinnacle in our nation, an apex of success, and so—while I unequivocally disagree—I can understand how many in our nation can use Obama’s success (and of many other Black high-achievers) as a launching point to talk about how “anyone” in our nation can be successful “no matter what.” Obama’s victory has given the country permission to unearth the particularities of a more covert racism that has been festering over the past few decades.
The problem is this: we as a nation have defined racism in a very specific way. Our way of talking about racism is grounded in the Jim Crow era, of white and black fountains, and water hoses, and our idea of a racist is a white person spewing the N-word at record speeds. The issue with this, is that this form of racism is grounded in a very particular history, and our country’s ethos has consented that we have moved beyond that point. Which poses a problem, because racism is more complicated now.
Racism has removed its gilded Jim Crow robes and dawned stealthier cloaks of institutions, policies, and class. Things which are harder to talk about and make palpable for your everyday individual to swallow. It’s easy to talk about Racism when there’s a villain (read: Trayvon’s Case), but Racism has morphed into the intricacies of the moment. We live in a time period where people can call you racist for suggesting that something is racist, or use liberal jokes about racism to still sorta-kinda be racist, and we live in a time period where even being “Black” isn’t as simple as it used to be.
So no—we aren’t post-racial—but we’re post-something, and we need to start figuring it out, because the successes we’ve achieved in the fight against racism are now being used as fuel to stall progress. Racism has gotten smarter and sleeker, so it’s about time that we start thinking about how to keep up.