Since the election of Barack Obama as president, many people are asking, Has the United States moved beyond race? Couched within the question is a hope that if we can move past race in the way we see each other, we might move beyond racism as well. The question shows up in the media, in the blogosphere and on the street. And it was discussed at a recent panel in New York City sponsored by Harvard alumni, with commentators Frank Rich (New York Times) and David Frum (American Enterprise Institute) and two political science professors who specialize in African-American studies: Jennifer Hochschild (Harvard) and Frederick C. Harris (Columbia). (View video clips from the panel here.)
Four points by the panelists stand out and ought to be discussed by many Americans in churches, classrooms, and around the dinner table as well as in public forums.
First, can we envision what a post-racial society would look like? Would politics without racial prejudice become less contentious or more so? Would identity politics persist, only based on categories other than race? Such questions are key because until we can set a common goal and identify its parameters, we as a society cannot gauge progress or acknowledge success. Will we even know a post-racial society when we see it?
Second, demography determines the future. The U.S., no longer divided simply along black/white racial lines, is a multiracial society composed of multiracial individuals (like our president). That has to be a given in our thinking as a society, meaning that we have to begin from the facts today, not from any previous understanding of how our society is composed. To future generations of Americans, today’s black/white concerns will seem very outdated. Demography also means that the debate will change regardless of how well we understand or discuss it; demographic shifts are beyond any individual’s control.
Third, evaluations of racial progress may not reach a consensus for decades. That is because a person’s understanding of race is conditioned largely by his or her particular generation: how did racial groups interact formally and informally, write its laws, protest any limitations, make improvements in race relations, and so on. How much commingling was there? That is the kind of thing that forms a generation. In a multigenerational society like ours, these various understandings and experiences coexist and make communication complex. People tend to speak from their own generational understanding of how things are, were, and should be.
Fourth, while race alone no longer says much about a particular person’s chances of succeeding in the U.S., the addition of class to race makes for a much better predictor. Some experts think, for example, that blacks with incomes in the nation’s top third or half experience a post-racial society (or nearly so) now. Yet that is not the case for lower-income blacks, whose race is still seen as both primary and determinative. In other words, some people can experience a post-racial society before others do; change does not come equally to all at the same historical moment.
My hope in passing on some of the discussion at the Harvard Club, is to stimulate further discussion among readers. High quality civil discussion on this topic can help to frame the issues and bring together people of many races, all of whom have a stake in hastening post-racial progress.
Karen Sue Smith