Americans Must Stare Directly at Race, Not Look Beyond It


Thirty years ago, a lanky young black man not too far removed from his undergraduate days at Columbia University in New York walked into a barbershop on the south side of Chicago. As the young organizer sat and had clumps of hair shoveled from atop his head, he looked up and saw the framed image of a brazenly posed man named Harold Washington, former mayor of the City of Chicago. Recalling Washington's ubiquity amongst the minority communities in the "Windy City," the young man would later profess, "[Harold Washington's] picture was everywhere … That's how black people talked [and thought] of Chicago's mayor, with a familiarity and affection normally reserved for a relative." Twenty five years after that haircut, Barack Obama himself became that familiar face within the shops and homes of African Americans, not just in Chicago, but all over the country. Before he himself became an iconic figure, Obama saw Washington. He saw race. Inspiration burgeoned within the heart and mind of the future president. While Obama – both in image and message – has come to represent proof of a post-racial America, it is by directly looking at race, and really determining how to shape our individual and collective fates because of it, is the true route to progress.  

One reason why we, as a nation, are better off engaging with race head-on is because the arguments encouraging Americans to ignore race are insufficient. For example, a talking point of typical post-racial conversations is that Americans, despite their race, have control over their destinies, and the only impediment toward upward social mobility for poor people, minorities in particular, is excuses. Yet, when we look at how interconnected components of our lives are in creating paths to the middle class standard of living, is it merely excuse-making that holds certain people back? If someone is funneled into a certain neighborhood with certain schools that do not prepare students for jobs, is he or she complaining about the issue at hand? More importantly, will ceasing complaints solve the cyclical problem that inundates so many people of color?

When the topic of a post-racial America surfaces, people often cite that the increased of racial mixing is making America so racially diverse that race is losing its meaning. According to the New York Times, the percentage of people who identify as "mixed-race" increased by 32% over the last decade. This complicates the way Americans see and identify race to the point of the concept's demise. However, if we exclude Hawaii, none of the states with the highest mixed-race population report having a group that makes up more than 8% of all people within those states. Even when just looking at matrimony, 85% of American marriages in 2010 were racially homogeneous. So, how can America be a major racial melting pot when who we love is guided by race?

The final post-racial argument in circulation is that today, America is far removed from the days of Jim Crow and Americans are physically beyond the racial turmoil of the past. Have we made progress on race? Absolutely. We are in a new era of racial progress made possible by the sacrifices of people of all races to make this nation stronger and more equitable. However, how are we past race when groups in America are subjected to different treatment in their daily lives in areas such as: police treatment, treatment on the job, health care, schools, and voting? How is race a thing of the past when the gap in wealth between whites and blacks and Latinos continues to widen?

Refleting on the Obama presidency thus far, the moments when he addressed race were instances that made us stronger. However, I believe the true power lies in our collective decision to acknowledge race and deal with the murky situation that its history and standing present today in the United States. We do not need the idea or significance of race to disappear. We, instead, need to dissolve all societal veins through which race places boundaries on certain people. In other words, I think that millennials must reshape our society according to how the world should be, by not moving past race, but rather by looking right at it.