'Postracial' America, One Year Later

Last week, a Gallup poll revealed that while white optimism about race relations remains at November 2008 levels, black optimism has fallen to where it stood before Barack Obama's rise to prominence.

We can excuse descriptions of America as "postracial" last year. Obama's campaign themes encouraged the term, and his victory was deeply seductive to most Democrats. Across the globe, critics of George W. Bush's policies sighed in relief, while black Americans wept euphorically on CNN.

Recent praise of America as "postracial" in outlets as prominent as the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times is less forgivable. The word is flat-out harmful, and needs to be permanently retired.

In yet another surreal sideshow last month, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) declined to condemn the Louisiana justice of the peace who refused to marry an interracial couple. "I just don't believe," the justice said, "in mixing the races." Add that to a year that has included a "Beer Summit," "Birthers," the health care town halls, Representative Joe Wilson's (R-SC) "You lie!" outburst at Obama's health care address, and Jimmy Carter's knee-jerk maligning of Obama critics as racists.

The real conversation on race, like it or not, is still pending.

Barack Obama's win was a profound public testimony to American decency. Institutionally, however, in education, health care, homeownership and jobs, blacks remain severely disadvantaged. As the National Urban League (NUL) report, "The State of Black America 2009," summarized last March, "even as an African-American man holds the highest office in the country, African Americans remain twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and more than six times as likely to be incarcerated."

Maternal mortality for blacks is three times higher than for whites, minority-rich schools are twice as likely to have inexperienced teachers, and blacks' median household income remains at 65 percent of whites', according to NUL's latest statistics. Yet in public debates--on job creation, education, and health care reform--the issue of race is conspicuously absent.

Starting a civil, measured debate on race will mean accepting what is long overdue: Barack Obama overcame his race during the campaign, but he also employed it, with negative effects. White liberals resent this idea (I should know, I'm one of them), and a year ago it was practically forbidden for whites to mention it.

Black or biracial pundits were allowed to say that Obama used his race manipulatively, and a few did. Shelby Steele framed the criticism in its harshest terms, describing Obama as a "bargainer" or "a black who says to whites, 'I will never presume that you are racist if you will not hold my race against me.'" The term "postracial" was born from this appeal, the call to "prove" true a myth that Reverend William Alberts recently attacked as the "racism of equality," meaning that the presumption of equal access is racist.

Revisiting Obama's campaign themes makes his cajoling use of race difficult to ignore. Obama conflated bipartisanship with racial unity, "old politics" with racial politics, and critics with cynics of American potential.

Jon Favreau, Obama's speechwriter, has admitted that he had race in mind when he and Obama agreed upon the line "They said this day would never come" as the opener of Obama's victory speech after the Iowa caucuses. Favreau knew what leaving the antecedent of "They" unspecified would accomplish.

In Iowa, Obama built up his "They": "They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided; too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose." Never mind that this was Obama's first win against Hillary Clinton.

In New Hampshire then, Obama systematically linked his campaign phrase "Yes We Can" to some of America's greatest heroes. "Yes We Can," Obama told the crowd, was the clarion call of abolitionists, the framers at independence, woman suffragists, and Martin Luther King Jr. Opposing history's legends was another grouping left unlisted--slave owners, colonialists, sexists, racists.

Obama won because of the crippled economy, but his initial appeal consisted of this astounding "We" and "They" dynamic. It put him on the right side of history simply because he is African American.

Politicians say what they have to, and Obama knows better, as his race speech in Philadelphia showed. But by inviting voters to a symbolic conversation on race, rather than a substantive one, he elided--and invited whites to elide--how far away the "day" really is.