07.08.10

We're Not Post-Racial Yet

President Obama’s election notwithstanding, leading black thinkers dispute the idea that the U.S. has moved well beyond its racially troubled past. Lloyd Grove reports from the Aspen Ideas festival.

Barack Obama may be president of the United States and leader of the free world, but that doesn’t mean we’re suddenly living in a country no longer beset by the complications of racial identity. “Whenever I hear that term, ‘post-racial,’ it gives me a migraine,” said Atlantic Monthly senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates on Thursday, moderating an Aspen Ideas Festival panel portentously titled “Post-Racial America? Is Obama a Symbol of the New American Dilemma?”

The answer: a resounding not yet.

After panelists ranging from Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams to Newsweek contributing editor Ellis Cose did their entertaining best to put the question to a thorough examination, an audience member dispatched the issue succinctly: “We have one black president and a million black men in prison. There’s no way you can call this country 'post-racial.’”

“I have yet to meet a black person who believes we are living in a post-racial society,” Ellis Cose said.

National Public Radio’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault chimed in from the audience: “I don’t think we’re in a post-racial period. We’re a pre-1968, pre- Kerner Commission society"—a reference to the famous government study, after the 1968 riots, on racial tension and police brutality in America.

Hunter-Gault lamented a dearth of diversity in the news media, which she said makes a point of stoking racial division. “With all due respect to people like yourself,” she said to the panelists, “when I come to this country from South Africa and look at who is doing the commenting and reporting, we are in a pre-1968 society… I was introduced to Aspen by Ed Bradley,” she added, invoking the late CBS News and 60 Minutes correspondent. “We don’t have an Ed Bradley anymore.”

Ellis Cose said: “I have yet to meet a black person who believes we are living in a post-racial society…The problem with this discussion is it’s a little bit premature.”

Cose noted that when he met Obama as a freshman senator who hadn’t announced plans to run for president, it was clear that he was very aware of the power of his multiracial appeal as the son and grandson of black Africans and white Midwesterners, that people were attracted to the aspects of his identity with which they had most in common.

“He’s a politician,” Cose said. “And as a politician, he wants to appeal to the broadest possible group of people.”

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Williams, in a not-too-veiled reference to one of Joe Biden’s gaffe’s during the Democratic primary campaign, noted that Obama personifies “post-racialism as a new exceptionalism—the ‘good Negro’ of the South—and that only if you worked hard enough and were cleaner or neater,” you could attract broad support across the racial divide.

Columbia University provost Claude Steele, a psychology professor whose new book is Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, said he got the idea for his title from an experience related by New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples. Steele said that as a college student in Chicago, the African-African Staples discovered that nervous white people encountering him on the sidewalk would immediately relax if he started whistling a tune by the Italian baroque composer.

“Obama’s genius,” Steele observed, “is that he has whistled Vivaldi amazingly well.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.