50 years on, still living in the illusion of a post-racial society

50 years on, still living in the illusion of a post-racial society


Many have claimed President Barack Obama is the fulfilment of Dr. King’s half-century old dream, pointing to the election and reelection of the first black head of state as the coming of a post-racial society—an America no longer concerned with race, but instead views all individuals based on the content of their character. However, these individuals neglect the dual identity that President Obama and millions of African-Americans and minorities encounter on a daily basis—trying to balance an appreciation of one’s cultural background, while striving to attain success in a predominantly white society.

Unfortunately, not many have been successful at this task. Some choose to sacrifice their cultural affiliation in order to achieve success, conforming to the norms of white society in order to make more money and attain a higher social status. Others “buck the system,” deceived into thinking that valuing their black identity means rejecting success as defined by white America. But the greater question is this: If white Americans never choose between dual identities, why should anyone else have to?

In a recent Struggle and Transcendence class, Father Raymond Kemp asked several of my white peers how often they think about their race. Jokingly, a classmate responded, “every time I enter your class.” Although this was a moment of comic relief for the whole class, Father Kemp’s question caused many of my white peers to face an enlightening reality—race still matters.

In various conversations, many individuals have claimed that race is no longer a problem and that we live in a post-racial society. Even in our pseudo post-racial society, race matters. In order to prove my point, I want you to answer each of these questions honestly. First, how many times have you assumed that an African-American male must play sports since he is at Georgetown? Or assumed that the minority student in your class is most likely at Georgetown solely because of affirmative action? Finally, how do you treat those in the service industry? Would your demeanor and interaction with them change if they were the same race as you?

If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to any of those questions, let me be the first to assure you that it’s not your fault that you view things the way you do. Racism is so deeply embedded in the American tapestry that it has become second nature to many people. In our current society, it has taken on different forms, forms not so overtly demonstrated. For example, in the Early National era and the Civil Rights era, Blacks were viewed as undoubtedly inferior to Whites. This form of racism was explicitly stated and practiced—Blacks served Whites, Blacks and Whites could not eat together, sit together, or even worship together.

Now, however, racism isn’t as overtly stated but instead is re-incarnated in several subtle and unnoticeable forms; sadly, some Blacks don’t even notice it. In her best selling 2010 book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues the prison system in America is a form of institutionalized racism.  Interestingly enough, Alexander discovered most prisoners today suffer the same consequences as enslaved Africans during the Jim Crow era—no access to voting and discrimination.

Additionally, many African-Americans also experience institutional racism in education, healthcare, access to jobs, and several other aspects of life. In each of these areas, African-Americans are the most or nearly the most disenfranchised in comparison to other races. Why? In America, race still matters.

Though some might argue that upper-class Blacks are an example of how class discrimination is much more prevalent than racial discrimination, recent issues tell a different story. One example is the case of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In 2009 Gates, an African-American Harvard University professor was arrested for disorderly conduct because an officer thought he was trying to break into a house. After Gates presented his ID and explained to the officer his situation, he still proceeded to arrest Gates.

Some might argue that this is an extreme example, but I beg to differ. How would the officer’s response change if Gates was a white male? Although upper class Blacks may not experience the same forms of institutional racism as lower-class Blacks, the Gates incident and other unlisted events support the notion that race still matters.

The first day of every semester, I go through the same routine for every single class. I notice how many African-Americans are in the class, with the hopes that I am not the only one. Why? Unfortunately, being the only African-American student in a class assigns me an extra, unsolicited assignment—changing negative perceptions of the “typical” African-American student.

But there’s one problem—I am not the typical African-American student.

There is no typical African-American, but subconscious racism reinforces stereotypes and fuels systems that continue to disproportionately disenfranchise African Americans. Although my greatest hope is that someday there will be no need for social justice organizations like the NAACP, our work won’t end until minorities don’t have to choose between competing identities in America.



About Author


Deborah Williams

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “50 years on, still living in the illusion of a post-racial society”

  1. I loved this article. You brought up some very relevant points about American society and the role we, as individuals, play in it. However, I do have some questions and comments.

    1. What does it mean to “conform to the norms of white society?” Pretending racism doesn’t exist? Rejecting one’s cultural upbringing in an attempt to connect in a white world? Suppressing one’s natural dialect (such as Ebonics) so that one can sidestep the stereotype associated with black American language? However, in referencing that, I’ve learned it’s frowned upon in the academic world for a person to reject Ebonics as a legitimate dialect. There’s a huge debate among speech therapists that has pretty much concluded that attempting to “correct grammar” in Ebonics is damaging–not only to a person’s sense of self-worth, but a person’s sense of cultural value. I’ve also learned in my Modern Grammars class that Ebonics and other regional dialects are actually a form a correct grammar. The theory goes that if a native speaker uses it, its correct (in reference to Transformational Grammar).This issue of language, however, mainly seems to stem from class distinction as both Ebonics and Southern dialects have been historically viewed as dialects of the uneducated peoples. In order to gain a better perception, I’m asking what specifically are the norms a black American may feel she or he must conform to.

    2. White Americans do struggle with dual identities. And I’d wager, all Americans and all peoples do to some extent. I believe this because there are a number of factors in a person’s life that may either classify them as an “other” or as someone in a specific group. Ours is a world that appears more than ever to be one focused on class distinctions and minority status. As a white American I am not “typically” viewed as a person with a propensity for crime or violence. That’s one of the social benefits I have from being born in this skin. It’s not fair for black Americans or other minorities to be burdened with such stereotypes like being “lazy” or “violent” or “uncivilized.” But it is a result of our failures throughout human history. A history that we can hopefully redeem one day, a history we’re trying to redeem. But back to the point. Not only am a white American, but I’m a poor white American with an unstable family life who is not religious. Thus, I struggle daily with the identities that exist within me. A few identities I didn’t choose to be associated with. Some I did. As a citizen of a lower socioeconomic class in an Honors College that houses a majority of students from upper class backgrounds, I struggle to conform to a different standard of living. The other students go out. They buy things. Their parents pay for their cars and their gas and give them monthly allowances. Yes, these are mainly white students, but even the minority students in this honors program are from wealthy families. Yet, here I am, one of the few white students in this “elite” class that they sometimes look at with pity and with confusion. I have jobs. And, at first, I struggled to save that money because I wanted to prove I could exist within this “higher class.” I bought clothes and went out with my friends regularly. But, a tiny bit older and wiser, I accept our differences. I save my money–it’s all I have for the future–and I understand they we don’t all have the same privileges.

    Another identity–the family I come from. An environment of drugs and alcohol, of irresponsibility and loneliness. I can’t depend on my family. We don’t sit around and tell stories and make nice and love another. My personal struggles are different from those who have the safety-net of a caring family. I don’t go home on the weekends of spend pleasant holidays with my biological parents. This becomes one more thing to distinguish me from my peers if one were able to look under the surface of my white skin.

    My religious preferences fail to connect me as well. In a nation of Christians, the struggle is enormous. Of course, I am blessed (pun not intended) with a skin color and geographic location that leads others to assume I am Christian, but when they find out I’m not, their perceptions change. And, more often than not, their views of me do not become more positive but more negative and I don’t even have to say a word. It’s inherent, isn’t it? This tendency to feel a kinship with those of the same faith and to regard someone with a different faith as an “other?” So should I let them assume I’m Christian? Should I conform to this white Christian world to better protect myself from unwanted scrutiny?

    And then, I’m also a woman in a man’s world, but I won’t go into all that.

    But all of this mumbo-jumbo aside, the struggle I have with my multiple identities are quite different from those who are not white. After all, my character isn’t “revealed” to others by the color of my skin. But it still seems much more complicated than that, it seems to extend past race. Skin color isn’t the only surface characteristic that separates one human being from another. I can look at your clothes. Are you fashionable? Are you clean? Do you wear grungy overalls or cowboy boots? If so, count me out, uneducated Redneck, I don’t want to be seen with you! Are your pants sagging, are you wearing an over-sized shirt? Then don’t bother talking to me, violent hoodlum!

    Okay, of course I don’t mean that, but you get the point. Black Americans have the odds stacked against them if they do choose to embrace their culture, clothes and all! Skin-color, sense of fashion, economic class. All docked points preventing them from conforming to a certain, standardized social image.

    But don’t discount my struggle with identity and conformation in a world that rejects me just because of the color of my skin.

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