November 5, 2008, newspaper headlines trumpeted the dawn of a new era: “A Nation Changed” (The Bakersfield Californian); “In Our Lifetime” (The Anniston Star); “America Chooses Change” (Tahoe Daily Tribune); and “Obama Wins in Historic Vote” (Record Searchlight), just to note a few. The election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America stunned the world and marked a milestone for our country—for all of us. Obama’s triumph offered new hope to those who had grown weary of the promise of America. It inched the nation closer to our vaunted ideals about equality. It burnished America’s tarnished image, at home and abroad.
While we rightfully celebrate the distance we have come from the racial tinderbox of old, the journey continues. The landmark 2008 Presidential election did not magically snuff out our racial problems. Racism is far too complex and systemic a phenomenon to be so easily extinguished. Talk of a new, “post-race” America seems, at best, idealistic; at worst, delusional.
“Race,” a social construct of dubious biological significance, profoundly defines American life. Tethered to American slavery and its first-born son, “Jim Crow,” race emerged as an instrument of social control.
Societal norms deemed African stock to be irrefutably racially inferior. The rule of hypodescent prevailed: mixed-race children inherited the status of the “racially inferior” parent. One drop of black blood marginalized and minimized one’s worth and value in society.
Race consigned African Americans to the social, political, and economic nadir in American society. The dominant culture exerted iron-fisted dominion over persons of any African ancestry whatsoever, using race to empower and to subjugate; to enrich and to impoverish; to anoint and to annihilate.
It is not possible to understand America without first learning the rudiments of race, both conceptually and practically, and its enduring legacy. How has race molded individual psyches? How has race shaped our intergroup and interpersonal relations? How has race sculpted the allocation of power and privilege?
Many of us long for the day when a “post-race” worldview reigns, a vantage that acknowledges the psychosocial realities of race, but does not attach determinative status to them. But we are not there yet. We are not even close.
True, the ascendancy of a Mr. Obama to the highest office in the land signaled a profound generational change in possibilities for certain African Americans and other persons of color. That notwithstanding, in wake of Mr. Obama’s rise, gross racial disparities persist in virtually all aspects of our lives: education, employment, poverty, and the criminal justice system, just to catalogue a few. Whether these grim statistics are driven primarily by systemic racism, other individual and sociological factors (e.g., lack of initiative, character deficits, family dysfunction), or some combination of these remains a bone of contention. Few argue that race plays no role in these alarming inequities.
Our challenges today around race are no longer simply bilateral. Discussions about race, racism, and racial reconciliation have to extend beyond black and white and, indeed, outside the color wheel. A more expansive, ongoing dialogue is in order. We need to engage one another around our “diversity,” the particular attributes and characteristics that make us who we are, and the correlative concept of “inclusion,” the affirmative embrace of differences, with understanding and appreciation, coupled with an acknowledgement of our shared humanity.
We are black and white, to be sure, but we are also brown and red and yellow and gay and disabled and female and military and Catholic and elderly and….
There is an emerging critical mass, a collective of the concerned, who recognize leveraging our diversity and fostering inclusion are essential if we are to live up to our American ideals; if we are to be competitive in the twenty-first century.
The urgency of now is upon us. It is time to use the familiar tools of sustained dialogue, personal and institutional commitments, and investments of time and money to move the needle still further, and even beyond the ambitious ideal of a “post-race” society.
Why not expand our vision? Why not look thoughtfully at the varied and complex diversity and inclusion issues we face? Why not set our sights even higher? I long for a pro-inclusion America.
Hannibal B. Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, and consultant. Johnson also teaches at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University in Tulsa.