We Don’t Live in Postracial America Yet

After the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States of America, Glenn Beck, on FoxNews.com, quickly criticized the racialism of Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony. While he was not the least bit bothered by Rick Warren’s divisive invocation, Beck found the closing benediction from civil-rights veteran, Joseph Lowery, aggravating simply because it ended on a theme of race. Incensed by Lowery’s implication that “white” people may not always embrace what is “right,” Beck responded with frustration, “Even at the inauguration of a black president, we are being called racist.” Though Beck no doubt would have happily criticized everything about the ceremony, he focused his critique on Obama’s inaugural failure to meet his supposed “post-racial” promise.

Beck’s criticisms suggest that, at least for him, post-racial means that he should never have to be accused of being racist again, and perhaps he should never have to hear the word “race” again without the “post” in front of it. While 52% of the voting populace of the U.S. can congratulate itself on the election of Obama and the transformation of racial discourse such an election may portend, said election is not license to end conversations about race. Obama, in his own candidacy (in Philadelphia in March of 2008), actually demanded we push conversations about race further and deeper. In his recent book, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, Tim Wise, as he has done in previous works, critiques the machinations of white privilege and the need for this nation to wrestle with “racism 2.0,” the subtler forms of racialization that perpetuate white dominance. Current practitioners of racism 1.0 will admit they did not vote for Obama because they do not trust a black man. Practitioners of racism 2.0 may have even voted for Obama, but they still found him difficult to pin down and untrustworthy, a perception, which, though they may not admit it to themselves, had everything to do with Obama not being white. Statistics show that on average, people in the U.S. tend to maintain negative stereotypes of minoritized communities,1 even while willingly casting a vote for Obama. Such negative stereotypes participate in a system of continued white racial dominance, whose effects can clearly be seen, for instance, in the disproportionate numbers of Latin@s and African Americans in prison.2 Such stereotypes also appear in subtler ways, like the recent New York Post cartoon and fiasco in which people debate whether the image, because it is no longer an overtly racist moniker, can still be deemed racist.3 Recent research on the subconscious connection of “apes,” African Americans, and police violence propose that racialized programming, with deep roots in U.S. history, continues at a deep level among people of all racial-ethnic backgrounds and political inclinations.

I write this editorial not solely out of concern that Beck and other Euro-Americans think that Obama’s election means we can stop talking about race. I also fear that those of us who hail from minoritized backgrounds have internalized racism 2.0. Many of us need to query the privileges we have had in life, but we also need to examine the ways we have internalized negative stereotypes about ourselves from dominant culture. I, for one, continue to perceive myself through the Dubois’ double-consciousness, ever concerned about my measurements according to others’ tape, feeling my plural identities4 ever unreconciled. This internalized racism also means that I never learned to feel, truly, that such double-consciousness is my strength and not my shame. Following some arguments in John L. Jackson’s recent book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, I have been unwilling to own my paranoia around matters of race in personal and public life as justified. While confronting new and complex racial realities, realities that cannot be adequately addressed through pre-civil-rights-era terminology, I, too often, fear that I misread and over-react. At the same time, in these trying economic times, I wonder if I can actually get a job given my “strangeness,” my ethnic and other non-ethnically specific behavioral deviations from established cultural norms. And the big question, if I do get a job, is it because of my skill set and unique abilities, or is it simply because my last name helped an institution fill a quota?

That those of us from historically dominated groups still must wrestle with racism 2.0, especially around the question of affirmative action, was made apparent to me in the weeks following Obama’s election. On November 20, 2008, I watched an episode of the television show Ugly Betty, “When Betty Met YETI.” Ugly Betty, a U.S. interpretation of a Latin American telenovela, centers around Betty Suarez, a young assistant to the editor-in-chief of the fictional fashion magazine, Mode. While the show has been known to confront challenging issues artfully, in “When Betty Met YETI,” the heroine decries the inhumanity of affirmative action.

At the beginning of the episode, Betty learns of the existence of the “Young Editors’ Training Initiative” (YETI). This course of seminars is a key career stepping stone. Betty decides to pursue admission to YETI, though she only learns of it two days before the deadline. As it turns out, the heroine must compete for a spot in YETI against fellow Mode assistant, and gay Euro-American, Mark (because heaven forbid she should compete against an unambiguously privileged white heterosexual male). While Betty gives a strong presentation in her interview for YETI admission, everything about Mark’s application strikes the viewer as significantly better than Betty’s. Where she only supplies a cover and a letter from the editor, Mark creates an entire magazine, featuring articles contributed by famous columnists. When YETI admits Betty over Mark, she goes to comfort him, but he informs Betty that she was only admitted because she is Latina and fills a quota. Later in the show, Mark hopes she doesn’t think he is a racist for having said this, and the viewer is made to feel that what he said was completely reasonable and obvious. Then, YETI confirms for Betty that they only admitted her because she was Latina.5

Tortured by this revelation of her quota-filling prowess, Betty decides to withdraw from YETI so that Mark can have her spot.6 Betty’s father, Ignacio, provides a short litany of the discrimination he experienced for being Mexican, and ultimately he concludes that if they want to give Betty something because she is Mexican, she should take it.7 Betty, however, prefers YETI to want her for who she is, not because of some arbitrary system that picks her just because she is Latina. Fair enough, the experience of what I dub affirmative action 2.0, the system of racial quotas that education and employers have wielded in response to the 1960s civil rights movements, can be incredibly painful. We would all prefer to be admitted and hired because we really are the best people around. Alas, we live in an unjust world that is not a meritocracy, and without affirmative action 2.0, Betty’s application would have been disregarded because it bore the name Suarez. For instance, a 2003 University of Chicago-MIT study found that people whose resumes bore equal qualifications but white-sounding names were 50% more likely to be called for an interview than people with black-sounding names.8

So Betty withdraws from YETI. In the end, however, her boss, the wealthy and well-connected Euro-American heterosexual man, Daniel Meade, pulls some strings. He speaks with the YETI board and manages to get Betty re-admitted alongside Mark. Betty has now become a recipient of what I term affirmative action 1.0 (or “old-school affirmative action”), the old boys’ network. Affirmative action 1.0 has no-doubt existed for countless generations; thus Plutarch partially admires ancient Sparta for its supposed elimination of nepotism, thereby criticizing Roman-style affirmative action 1.0. Affirmative action 1.0 is not a system that explicitly prevents members of minoritized communities from acquiring jobs and educational degrees. Instead affirmative action 1.0 assists the already well-connected in acquiring jobs and spots in schools because of whom they know and who their family is rather than through any merit-based analysis of their actual skill-set.9 In the case of Ugly Betty and YETI,her wealthy and powerful (and not coincidentally Euro-American) boss likes her and pulled strings for her. Betty, who refused affirmative action 2.0, should be equally incensed that YETI would admit her just because of affirmative action 1.0. Here again, YETI admitted her not for the merit of her ideas but because of systemic practices whereby an admissions committee would be reluctant to deny wealthy and powerful Daniel Meade’s pushy request. Oddly, our heroine is no longer upset that YETI has no interest in her as Betty Suarez; rather, she is thrilled that Daniel supports her, and she happily takes a position received thanks to affirmative action 1.0.

What lesson should a Latina draw from watching such a television episode, especially cast in the light of an historic election, which supposedly, finally, signifies that those from non-dominant communities in the U.S. can do anything? Affirmative action 2.0 is, and always has been, an imperfect solution to an imperfect system. Yet affirmative action 2.0 always leaves recipients open to scapegoating. We have become accustomed to the label “affirmative-action case,” and naturally, someone at Ugly Betty wished there were some other way to navigate our uncomfortable reality. For most of my life, I have been riddled with self-doubt about whether I deserve what I have achieved. At the same time, I have watched a fairly talentless upper-middle-class “WASPy” heterosexual male slide easily into well-paying jobs and artistic gigs, without once questioning whether he really deserved them or if he was just an affirmative action 1.0 case, receiving appointments merely because of his privileged upper-middle-class white racial identity and family connections. Perhaps one of the main problems with affirmative action 2.0 is its failure to challenge the injustices of affirmative action 1.0, injustices which affect people from the lower middle classes, regardless of their racial background, just because they lack connections to the elite and powerful.10

I understand that talented people genuinely believe they have earned better in life and are frustrated to see others receive accolades they think that they deserved. Affirmative action 2.0 allows many Euro-Americans to think that some minority kid unfairly took their spot, instead of pushing these Euro-Americans to question not only their own qualifications (did they really deserve that job; or has their privileged background led them to assume they deserved it?) but also the broader injustices of the world in which we live. In a discussion of the Gratz v. University of Michigan case,11 however, Wise points out that while some students of color at the University of Michigan had lower test scores than Gratz did, over 1000 white students did as well. Her spot, if in fact she deserved one, was more likely taken by a white student whom the University of Michigan favored because of athletic ability or because s/he grew up in the wealthy Upper Peninsula (both categories also received extra points in the Michigan admissions process).12 Yet her anger was not directed at athletic or class preference, a class preference largely favoring those of Euro-American background. Her anger did not criticize affirmative action 1.0 as it was encoded into the University of Michigan admissions policies; her anger was directed at affirmative action 2.0 and the recipients from minoritized communities.

The assumption that we are more entitled to a spot at USC than an African American with slightly lower SAT scores has everything in the world to do with “privilege,” being privileged enough to nurture a sense of entitlement. Privilege allows one to challenge affirmative action 2.0 because its recipients are the underprivileged. I can only assume one refuses to challenge affirmative action 1.0 because its recipients are privileged, and one hopes to someday avail oneself of precisely affirmative action 1.0’s privileges.13 I certainly recognize that I had privileges over other Latin@s that enabled me to be where I am, and among these privileges are my fair skin and perfect standard English, privileges that allowed me to widen a door cracked open for me by the privilege of affirmative action 2.0. Yet my life is not everything I wanted. I have not received everything I have applied for. Why? Because that is life; we’re not all Susan Sontag or Albert Einstein. The Jennifer Gratz of the world need to make peace with the injustice of life just as much as I do, while fighting for a system that is fairer for everyone, and not just for our privileged selves. I would have respected Betty’s character more if she had turned down YETI’s position the second time because she did not want to receive affirmative action 1.0 either. I would have admired her for taking the position at YETI but saying I am going to use this affirmative action 1.0 now to make sure that no one is ever admitted for something other than their qualifications again.

Sorry, Will Smith, just because Barack Obama is president does not mean that other people in this country have no excuse for failing to achieve their dreams. How many people, black, white, or what have you, have had either the educational opportunities of Punahoe (Obama’s elite Hawaiian preparatory high school) or the sheer genetic good fortune to be as handsome and intelligent as Obama (or Smith for that matter)? Yes, the U.S.A. has made immense progress on what Jackson terms de jure and de facto racism.14 Still, real systemic inequalities persist, and all of us still wrestle with de cardio racism, the racism that transpires in our hearts and that we hide from the world and often from ourselves. Affirmative action 2.0 sought to redress some of the inequalities that pervade our racially contorted system, but yes, it is an imperfect solution. The imperfections of this approach do not mean, though, that we have the luxury of throwing it out the window. Ugly Betty over-simplifies the complexities of affirmative action 2.0 while favoring the even more unfair unwritten policy of affirmative action 1.0. If a show supported by prominent Latin@s can propagate such a simplistic narrative, then those of us who can speak complexly about race have much work before us. Sorry, Glenn Beck, but just because affirmative action 2.0 made it possible for enough people of color, including President Obama, to take advantage of affirmative action 1.0 does not mean the work of affirmative action 2.0 is complete or that we can stop talking about race and racism.

• Footnotes
  1. “Minoritized communities” refer roughly to those who fall into the following “racial” categories: African American, Asian American, Latin@, Middle-Eastern American, and Native American. []
  2. Tim Wise’s book provides further details that lay bare the inequalities resulting from such dominance, such as white Americans’ disproportionately lower rates of imprisonment for drug use than other parts of the population, in spite of this group’s being able to boast a higher percentage of drug users among them than is the case for other races. The work also points to systemic inequalities that target racialized minority groups besides Latin@s and African Americans. []
  3. The reluctance to deem the cartoon racist also circles around the way that the label “racist” tends to be a conversation stopper instead of the conversation-starter it was meant to be. In a recent speech, Attorney General Eric Holder called the people of the United States “cowards” for their unwillingness to confront race. New York Times’ editorialist Charles M. Blow criticizes Holder’s comments on the basis that calling people cowards does not make them willing to talk to you; it just makes them defensive. Numerous people of color have made similar statements about the “r” word; don’t call people racist because then they just get defensive and refuse to change. Confronting aspects of what John L. Jackson, Jr. has called de cardio racism in his recent book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, Holder challenges all the people of the U.S.A., not just white Americans, to confront the issue of race straight on and have the guts to talk about these aspects of de cardio (internal matters of the heart that hide beneath the surface) racism, those parts of racial discourse and practice that can only be read between lines and beneath the surface because political correctness has eliminated most surface racism and made many Euro-Americans terrified of being called prejudiced, as Blow elucidates in his own essay. Jackson suggests, as my own experience does, that in fact the only way forward in confronting de cardio racism is through close personal relationships that require courage. We must be willing to confront racism in our friends, who must get over their fear of being called racist. We must be willing to confront racism in our own minoritized communities and ourselves, and not just internalized racism against ourselves. Latin@s, for instance, need to confront racism toward African Americans. Why, for instance, is the only significant African American character in Ugly Betty, played by Vanessa Williams, also a major villain (even if she has a better rounded character in the most recent season)? Too often comments like Holder’s focus on the relationship between white and black America without consideration of other communities, like Native Americans who are so painfully absent in Holder’s comments, even if his comments address black history month. All communities need to respect and listen to the racial quagmire confronting all groups. These groups should also confront additional questions of privilege like class and heteronormativity. We must have the courage to remain committed to friendships with people who do not always make things easier for us, but who challenge us most of all when we lie to ourselves.

    []

  4. I have at least two warring and at times complementary identities, maybe more since I am a woman, a gender category that carries its own double-consciousness, and my racial and ethnic identities are not neatly circumscribed by U.S. racial terminology. []
  5. YETI”s acknowledgment surprised me because, unless I have applied to a program that specified a desire strictly for under-represented applicants, I have never had anyone admit so plainly that I received anything for filling a quota. I have, however, had plenty of colleagues hint at such an agenda, claiming that I have had advantages they were denied because of their blinding whiteness. I have had white male colleagues tell me I have a better shot at getting a job than they do because I have affirmative action 2.0 working in my favor, but they never doubt that they deserve a job more than I do, or question whether all Euro-Americans who receive good jobs necessarily earned them. []
  6. This is another leap from my reality; I have never been admitted to a program and then been enabled to name my replacement if I withdrew. []
  7. I, unlike the producers, happen to agree with Ignacio that this is the least YETI can do to compensate for all the times people at Mode have insulted her father’s cuisine. []
  8. Project Implicit also studies our unexamined racial biases. It is worth everyone taking a trip to this site and taking these psychological tests. We may be surprised to discover the racial biases we hold inside. []
  9. Actually, another recent book suggests that post-civil-rights affirmative action is actually the era of affirmative action 3.0, and that the New Deal ushered in an era of affirmative action 2.0 that specifically helped Euro-Americans while denying assistance to minoritized communities. See Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. []
  10. Marc Lombardo in reviewing this piece also suggested that an advantage of affirmative action 2.0 for the dominant culture could be that affirmative action 2.0’s recipients constantly question whether they are good enough. Such self-doubt often pushes these recipients from minoritized communities to work harder than their non-affirmative-action colleagues. []
  11. Jennifer Gratz sued the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor for a system of what she deemed unfair racial preference, which granted students from minority backgrounds extra points in their admission applications. This system, she contends, denied her a spot at her first choice university because it went to some non-white student with lower SAT scores. How she actually proved this is beyond me. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided in her favor, 6-3. Naturally, I am in complete disagreement with Gratz and the then-Rehnquist court. []
  12. The one worthwhile anti-affirmative action 2.0 question to pursue here might be, are there people of color in the wealthy Upper Peninsula who applied, and did they get double bonus admissions points? Affirmative action 2.0 undoubtedly needs to take up issues of class, still with a preferential option for minoritized communities who are still underserved even in comparison to their underserved lower middle class white families. Yet issues of class should factor into these considerations more as underprivileged poor Euro-Americans likewise lack access to affirmative action 1.0 and need systemic help. Jennifer Gratz, however, being from a middle-class family who could afford to sue the University of Michigan was not underprivileged in any way; thus my objections to the Supreme Court’s decision in her favor stand. []
  13. Privilege is also too complex to examine in this essay. Again, I direct readers to Peggy McIntosh or Tim Wise for further information on white privilege in particular. []
  14. According to John L. Jackson, Jr. in Racial Paranoia, de jure racism is racism “of law”; that which is rooted in and can be rectified by law. De facto racism is racism “of fact”; that which is obvious and easy to name, which differentiates it from de cardio racism. De cardio racism is racism “of the heart,” that which transpires beneath the surface, between the lines, and that which we hide even from ourselves. Racial paranoia exists in our new post-political-correctness racial age where much racism is a matter of de cardio racism, a racism that irks and evokes suspicion but cannot be named. Its elusiveness gets treated as license to pretend it no longer exists, and the post-racial epithet responds precisely to the perpetuation of de cardio racism, that which lies at the heart of continuing racialization. We must all own our racial paranoia and work on de cardio racism if we are ever to be truly “post-racial.” []

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