In an era in which many claim America is a post-racial society, it is important to debunk that myth by taking an in-depth look at the issues surrounding race, “integration” and, more recently, “diversity.”
Many feel the potential for racial integration in the United States is greater now than ever before. However, the central characteristics of race relations, i.e., ambivalence, hypocrisy and white people’s fundamental fear of Blacks, especially, gaining racial equality still exist.
The leaders of the desegregation social protest movement mobilized millions with a simple demand, “freedom.” In the context of a still racially segregated society, post-World War II, freedom meant elimination of all social, political, legal and economic barriers that kept African Americans in a subordinate status.
Implicit in the demand for desegregation (integration) were several assumptions: Desegregation would increase opportunities for Blacks in business, government and throughout society; desegregated educational institutions would promote greater racial harmony and understanding between people from different races, ethnic groups and communities, which in turn would promote residential integration; and affirmative action policies would gradually increase the number of African Americans, Latinos and others of color in good paying jobs. It was assumed as African Americans escaped the ghetto, racial tensions and bigotry would decline significantly and as Blacks were more thoroughly integrated into the economic system, the basis for racial confrontation would diminish.
This thesis was fundamentally flawed in several respects. First, desegregation did not benefit the Black community uniformly- Black professionals, college graduates were the principal beneficiaries. And race continued to matter, especially for Blacks and the unemployed, the poor, and others whose lives were hemmed in by illiteracy, disease and desperation.
Legal desegregation contributed to the popular illusion that the basis for racial segregation no longer existed. Technically, the abolition of racially separate residential districts, hotels, schools, etc. convinced many white Americans the “Negro question” had been resolved and the passage of anti-discrimination legislation had eliminated all basic impediments to socio-economic and cultural advancement of Black Americans.
However, as Black leaders continued to speak out against ongoing social injustices, their complaints were dismissed as self-serving rhetoric. And many whites believed, or said they believed, Blacks themselves must be racists-a virtual impossibility because racism is the ability to control other groups based on race, ethnicity or color.
Arguably, civil rights leadership and the African American political establishment found themselves in a quandary of their own making. Their failure to develop a body of politics that represented a qualitative extension of the civil rights movement was directly linked to the paucity of their values, outlook and effectiveness.
One school of thought suggests the weakness of African American leadership was its failure to distinguish between ethnicity and race and to apply both terms to the realities of capitalism and the power elite. To this group, African Americans were both a racial and ethnic group. Therefore, African American ethnicity was derived from the cultural synthesis of African heritage and experience with American society.
W.E.B. DuBois observed a century ago that Black Americans are both African and American, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” This central duality is at the core of African American consciousness, forming the fundamental matrix of expressions of African American music, art, language, folklore, religious rituals, belief systems, the structure of families and other cultural manifestations and social institutions. In short, Blackness in the cultural context is the expression and affirmation of a set of traditional values, beliefs and social patterns, not their physical appearance or social class. Race is a totally different dynamic rooted in the structures of exploitation, power and privilege. It is an artificial social construct that was deliberately imposed on various subordinated groups of people at the outset of the expansion of European capitalism in the western hemisphere.
The racial consciousness and discourse of the West was forged on slave ships carrying human cargos into the Caribbean and the Americas. The search for agricultural commodities and profits from the extreme exploitation of Black people, deemed as less than human, gave birth to the notion of racial inequality.
In the United States, race is frequently defined as a group that has certain physical or biological traits, particularly phenotype (skin color), body structure and facial features. But race has no scientific validity as a meaningful biological or genetic concept. Its meaning shifts according to the power relationships between “racial” groups. In apartheid South Africa, Japanese people were considered as “white,” whereas, Chinese were classified as “colored.” In Brazil, a person of color could be “white,” “mulatto” or “black,” depending on the individual’s vocation, income, family connections and level of education.
Even in rigidly segregated societies like the American South before the modern civil rights movement, race was frequently situational—a function not just a physical appearance, but also the explicit or implied power relations that connected the individual of color to local realities. In segregated cities such as Washington, DC, Arab and certain African diplomats were permitted to stay in “whites only” hotels. Also, African Americans who owned property or who were well respected professionals were occasionally granted social privileges extended solely to whites.
To contend race no longer matters is a monumental mistake that serves to reinforce the barriers to social justice. Blacks cannot afford to make that mistake.