Hold on. We’re not yet in a postracial society, no matter what some commentators may be saying about the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama.
Unable to account for the startling success of this black candidate, some pundits are trying to find ways to explain how Obama isn’t really black. They say his appeal is postracial, while at the same time they continually compare him only to previous Democratic black presidential candidates and activists Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
Sharpton and Jackson bring needed attention to discrimination, but they are not the kings of all the blacks or yardsticks by which all blacks in our society are to be measured.
Obama is not Sharpton or Jackson, but that doesn’t make him non-black. There are many other powerful blacks he doesn’t resemble, either. Commentators do not compare Obama to nationally prominent black Republicans such as Colin Powell, or presidential candidate Alan Keyes, or even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has become the Republicans’ main symbol of our “postracial society.”
To these commentators, blackness seems to be a matter for discussion or analysis only when the candidate is not a conservative. They consider a public figure to be black to the extent that he or she constantly reminds everyone of the injustices of discrimination still faced by black people.
That Obama doesn’t do this in no way makes him less black. Nor does it mean we’ve entered the dawn of a postracial society. It simply means that Obama is an individual, who emphasizes his own themes and stresses his own values. One of those is racial harmony, lest the commentators forget.
Conservatives and Republicans have been saying ever since President Reagan proclaimed it in the 1980s that we have a colorblind society. Their claim is that issues of race and discrimination were resolved once and for all by the civil rights movement, and anyone who complains about discrimination or prejudice now is just reveling in the antiquated role of victim.
Discrimination is an offense most quickly recognized by the people who are its target. And almost every black person you meet can give you a vivid account that demonstrates the persistence of racism.
Simply saying that “I am not a racist” appears to be enough for some to claim exemption from responsibility for doing and saying the most patently racist things. As the Grand Wizard of the KKK in Texas once told me in an interview, “We’re not racists; we just believe in segregation.”
Claiming we live in a postracial society doesn’t make it so.
Look at the terminology some in the media use to describe Obama. In one recent New York Times piece, he was referred to alternately as a biracial or black candidate. Do we refer to John Edwards or John McCain or Mick Huckabee as white candidates?
The fact that we have to spend a lot of time talking about race in conjunction with Obama should demonstrate that we do not yet live in a postracial society.
Starita Smith is a doctoral student and instructor in sociology at the University of North Texas. She can be reached at email@example.com.