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Column: Sorry, Self-congratulatory America: You're Not Post-racism

This story was written by Eryk Salvaggio, The Maine Campus


Did you hear the news? America is totally post-racial! Since Barack Obama was elected, there's been a lot of talk about race, and how it's a whole new post-racial world. Finally, I don't have to think about racism anymore! I voted for a black guy -- and while it never occurred to me until today, I now have a new way of reminding myself that I'm not a racist. Like mentioning how I listen to Wu-Tang Clan and how I had a black friend in high school.

You see, here's a secret about earnest and clueless white people like me: We keep a list of things that prove how un-racist we are, just in case it ever comes up. Of course, it's ridiculous to do this -- keeping a stack of evidence that absolves us of racism is like taking the name of every stranger we pass, just in case we ever need an alibi for a potential massacre.

So, I should be embracing the idea of post-racial America. But it seems to me that the depth of racism's imagined decline depends wholly on the color of your skin.

Let me begin by offending 99.3 percent of Maine's population: Stop pretending a white person can understand what racism feels like. We all have a story about how we were discriminated against once because we were fat, or skinny, or felt weird when we hung out on a train with a bunch of black people and they laughed at how nervous we were, but it's not the same.

Regardless of the facts of American society today, there is a dramatic history of institutionalized racism in America. White folks like to think it ended in 1972. But even then, 77 percent of whites were against "intermarriage."

Whatever your non-race-based discrimination story is -- unless you're gay -- that's the difference. You might get harassed by drunk kids, but you are not surrounded by monuments dedicated to people who nonchalantly believed you were too genetically inferior to vote or own land.

Will white America take those monuments down? Of course we won't. Why? Because frankly, most white people think racism is boring. They're done discriminating, they mock racists and they're sick of it coming up. We can declare racism doesn't exist because overt racism doesn't -- and in case you don't believe us, we have that massive secret list of black comedians we like. That's how we tear down traces of our racist past: We buy every season of "Chappelle's Show."

Does it matter if white America decides it is "post-racial"? I wish it were that simple, but I can only be sick of racism because I am privileged. Race never factored into any part of my life, my culture, my opportunities. No laws ever told me where I could eat. I don't see brand names that made early profits by reducing my great grandfather to the same status as a mule. For many, that residue lingers perpetually in the air, an odious reminder of oppression tucked into the banalities of daily life. For me, it's a comfortable cotton shirt or a pack of cigarettes.

We can respond that "It's not my fault, and so-and-so should get over it," but that's not empathy. It doesn't make you a racist, but it isn't empathy, and to lack empathy is to ignore a piece of another's humanity. And denying humanity is, essentially, oppressive. It is a subtle and passive act. No one ever schedules a lack-of-empathy rally, and so it is hard to accept the notion that our boredom with racism is itself a form of passive racism: It's the type of argument that makes the bored-with-racism crowd angry. They point to the most radical of black thinkers and say, "I'm supposed to tuck the 'AIDS-is-a-CIA-conspiracy' into my cultural rainbow?" Well, no. Empathy doesn't mean abdicating the ability to reason. It's the ability to honestly negotiate a common understanding of how we each got to be who we are.

Empathy, on both sides, can bridge this diide, and it may be the last step America needs to take. Ultimately, you can't ask white kids to help fix what they don't see as "their" problem. We don't see ourselves as discriminating. Our grandparents? Sure. But the kids today? No way. Racism is no longer pure discrimination. The problem of racism is foreignness: The idea of "them" and "us," the vast cultural gap that we are desperate to fill and so terrified of talking about. Ignoring it by "post-racializing" the world isn't going to close that gap. Empathy will.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr: We have learned to judge a man by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin. We have made real the promises of democracy. But can we say we are truly living on the solid rock of brotherhood?

"Creating change and making the world better is not always easy, and you will probably find in your life that it is more comfortable to ignore injustices that don't affect you directly," Barack Obama recently wrote in a letter to an 8-year-old supporter of his campaign. "Don't take that comfortable road."

Make no mistake: Barack Obama has torn down a racial barrier -- but has not abolished inequity in the process. He is in a unique position to bring about a dialog that can reconcile the two sides of the divide. But that isn't the president's job. It's ours.

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