The signposts of racism are staring back at us in big, bold racial inequities. But some Americans are ignoring the signposts, walking on by racial inequity, riding on by the evidence, and proclaiming their belief with religious fervor. “America is not a racist country,” Senator Tim Scott said in April.
Black babies die at twice the rate of white babies. Roughly a fifth of Native Americans and Latino Americans are medically uninsured, almost triple the rate of white Americans and Asian Americans (7.8 and 7.2 percent, respectively). Native people (24.2 percent) are nearly three times as likely as white people (9 percent) to be impoverished. The life expectancy of Black Americans (74.5 years) is much lower than that of white Americans (78.6 years). White Americans account for 77 percent of the voting members of the 117th Congress, even though they represent 60 percent of the U.S. population.
Just as you can recognize an impoverished country by its widespread poverty, you can recognize a racist country by its widespread racial inequity. In the United States, Black college graduates owe an average of $25,000 more in student loans than white college graduates. Native Americans die from police violence at three times the rate of white people; Black people die at 2.6 times the rate; and Latino people die at 1.3 times the rate. In the United States, racial inequity is widespread by any measure.
And yet, some don’t want the American people to stop and see. They don’t want our kids to learn about the racism causing racial inequity. They are trying to ban teaching it in schools; Florida passed the latest such ban last Thursday.
They can’t acknowledge racial inequity because to acknowledge it is to discuss why it exists and persists. To discuss why racial inequity exists and persists is to point to the libraries of nonpartisan studies documenting widespread racism in the United States.
To say that there is widespread racial inequity caused by widespread racism, which makes the United States racist, isn’t an opinion, isn’t a partisan position, isn’t a doctrine, isn’t a left-wing construct, isn’t anti-white, and isn’t anti-American. It is a fact. But in recent years, some have reduced a host of facts to beliefs. “I don’t believe that,” Donald Trump said in September when a reporter asked him about the existence of systemic racism.
This is a precarious time. There are people tired of quarantining their racist beliefs, anxious about being held accountable by “wokeism” and “cancel culture,” yearning to get back to the normality of blaming Black inferiority for racial inequity. The believers are going after these people with disinformation. They are putting words in the mouths of Black Lives Matter activists, critical race theorists, the writers of the 1619 Project, and anti-racist intellectuals—and attacking the words they put in our mouths. Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina claims that we believe “people with white skin are inherently racist.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claims that we believe “all our institutions are bankrupt, and they’re illegitimate.”
No nation, no person, is inherently or permanently racist. The anti-racist resistance to slavery and Jim Crow is as much a part of American history as those peculiar institutions are. White people have been abolitionists and civil-rights activists, and they are among the people striving to be anti-racist today. Some institutions in the United States have been vehicles of equity and justice. But what we write or say or think doesn’t matter to the believers. All that matters to them is ensuring that adults and children continue to walk on by the signposts of racism that implicate them. All the believers want to do is make myths out of reality to keep the American people out of reality.
“It is time for America to discard the left-wing myth of systemic racism,” former Vice President Mike Pence tweeted on June 3. “America is not a racist Nation—America is the most just, righteous, noble and inclusive Nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth!”
We’ve heard this before.
“America is not a racist Nation” is the new “America is a postracial nation.” We are witnessing the birth of the new postracial project.
I couldn’t have directed anyone to my favorite Philadelphia restaurant as a doctoral student in 2008. It had no sign. I don’t even remember its name. Most people walking by it on North Broad Street would not have known it was there. Whenever I walked in, searching for a late-night meal, I was greeted by its unappetizing decor.
But I adored this discreet hole-in-the-wall, blocks from my home in North Philadelphia. I adored what I smelled whenever I stepped inside. I adored what I heard—the unseen owner/cook/waitress/hostess greeting me from far back in the steaming kitchen.
Forgive me. I don’t remember the elderly Black woman’s name. I’m not much of a small talker. Neither was she.
Most nights, I’d walk over to the kitchen. I’d return her greeting. I’d order a platter. I’d sit on down and wait. And wait. And read. And think. And wait. All in perfect peace.
But not on the night of January 3, 2008. A tiny, grainy box television seized my attention as soon as I heard it. I had not been following the presidential campaign season closely. I didn’t watch much television or read much news. I had been hibernating in my studies since beginning my doctoral program months earlier.
So on that night, I did not go to the kitchen. I shouted my order as I’d seen other people do. She nodded and kept on cooking.
All the tables were empty. I chose one. The TV was mounted where the grime of the ceiling and discoloration of the wall met. I did not know that Iowa had had its Democratic caucus that day. I sat in silent shock when the network announced that the Black candidate had won that lily-white state.
When he came out to deafening applause from his supporters, the cook turned waitress came out with her food and her smile. She placed both down on my table without a word. Then she turned around and looked up, like me, at the mounted TV.
Almost as if on cue from a director, Senator Barack Obama began to speak.
“Thank you, Iowa,” he began. “You know, they said this day would never come.”
The crowd applauded. I sat there, still, like my food.
“But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.”
Obama spoke on and the lady stood on, rugged and tender, like our environment.
“We’re choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”
The message was indeed powerful. If he could win Iowa, he could win America. Change seemed to be coming. The audience started chanting.
“We want change! We want change! We want change! We want change!”
By the next morning, some white Americans had started transfiguring We want change into We have changed. “What was remarkable was the extent to which race was not a factor in this contest,” Adam Nagourney wrote in The New York Times.
As Obama won more primaries, the narrative spread. The fact that racial inequity existed and persisted didn’t matter. The day after Obama won South Carolina on January 26, Peter J. Boyer identified Obama and Cory Booker, then Newark’s mayor, as members of “the post-racial generation” in The New Yorker.
By the end of January, journalists were explaining what “postracial” meant. “The post-racial era, as embodied by Obama, is the era where civil rights veterans of the past century are consigned to history and Americans begin to make race-free judgments on who should lead them,” NPR’s legendary analyst Daniel Schorr reported, adding that “it may still be too early to speak of a generation of colorblind voters, but maybe color blurred?”
Thereafter, Obama’s campaign tunes of racial progress were further remixed as tunes of racial arrival. “So, in answer to the question, ‘Is America past racism against black people,’ I say the answer is yes,” John McWhorter wrote in Forbes weeks after Obama’s election.
The postracial myth was embedded so deeply into the American consciousness that when Trump ran a racist campaign and won eight years later, countless people were shocked. The myth of a postracial America died with Trump’s election. It has now been resurrected, paving the conceptual way for Trump’s return and the ruin of this nation.
The people who promulgated the original postracial project in 2008 aren’t necessarily the same people resurrecting it today. The postracial myth was first propagated by liberals who were eager to avoid grappling with persistent inequities. Back then, many liberals were stepping over the reality of inequality to fantasize that the nation had done the impossible—elected a Black president—because it had overcome racism. The denial of racism stymied the battle against it, leading many Americans to underestimate the political appeal of birtherism and Trump, providing a clear runway for his MAGA campaign to take off, and then allowing it to land in the White House.
And now, even though Trump’s ghastly presidency and the ghastly murder of George Floyd awoke many liberals to the need to build an anti-racist nation, many conservatives have seized on the postracial myth to fight those efforts. They insist that anti-racism is anti-white. That insistence echoes the mantra coined by the longtime white supremacist Robert Whitaker in 2006: “Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.” GOP politicians want their voters to feel aggrieved and enraged before the 2022 election. They want them to believe the violent lie that teaching critical race theory amounts to attacking and harming white children. Republican politicians want their voters to believe the fantasy that systemic racism is “a bunch of horse manure,” as DeSantis called it.
But I’m hardly shocked that this racist idea has been resurrected. The postracial idea is the most sophisticated racist idea ever produced. It keeps resurfacing and mutating and harming in new forms.
Crude popularizers of racist ideas, such as Trump, tell people precisely how other racial groups are inferior; immigrants from Latin America, he said, are criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. That sort of racism is relatively easy to recognize and dismiss.
But the postracial idea is the hardest racist idea to put down. Everyone is inclined to consume it. White people and people of color alike long for racism to end. When we yearn for something to end—and don’t know what the end looks like—it is easy to make ourselves believe the end is near. Believing the myth of a postracial America is a cheap way to feel good, like buying the fast food down the block from my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia. We don’t realize that to believe the postracial myth is to normalize racial inequity and deny that racism is dividing and devastating our society.
Because although Americans see racial inequity, we don’t all agree on its causes. Many Americans search for nonracial explanations for racial inequity, particularly class and its proxy, education. But presenting class as the answer avoids the question of why people of color are unduly poor and white people are disproportionately wealthy. It ignores the racial inequities between classes. It ignores the fact that in New York City, college-educated Black women suffer more severe pregnancy-related complications than do white women who haven’t completed high school. It ignores the fact that white Americans who haven’t graduated high school have more wealth than Black college graduates.
The cause of racial inequity is either racist policy or racial hierarchy. The racial problem is the result of bad policies or bad people. Either Asian New Yorkers experienced the highest surge in unemployment during the pandemic because they are lazy and prefer welfare over work—or the inequity is the result of racist policy. Either Black and Latino people are the least likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19 because there’s something wrong with them—or the inequity stems from racist policy. Either Black girls are six times as likely to be expelled from school as white girls because they misbehave more—or the inequity is caused by racist policy. To believe in racial hierarchy, to say that something is wrong with a racial group, is to express racist ideas.
The sophistication of the postracial myth is simple: Eliminating the explanation of racism for racial inequity ensures that the believers willingly consume and cook up their own racist ideas to explain the racial inequity all around them.
I’d often bring a bag of books to my favorite restaurant. I’d read as I waited a long while for my food. I devoured books and essays on Black life, racism, anti-racism, and history. I had studied these topics for years. But nothing prepared me for the intensity of doctoral studies. Nothing prepared me for the precision and collisions of the sharp minds around me. Nothing prepared me for writing practically a book a semester in the form of multiple 30-page research papers. Nothing prepared me for the total life immersion of study.
In fact, I was readying myself to join a guild of intellectuals with expertise on the structures of racism. This guild studies, diagnoses, and strives to eliminate racism. The believers call us “race hustlers,” but they would never call oncologists “cancer hustlers.” They’ll do anything to delegitimize our training and expertise, which veils their absence of training and expertise, which legitimizes their postracial fairy tales.
Fighting racism—in academia, in media, in activism, in art, in education, or in public service—is more than a job for most of us. It’s a calling to save nations from their national histories, to save human beings from human beings. Racism is an existential threat to the United States, like climate change, pandemics, and nuclear war. We know that the American people can’t handle this truth, but we tell them anyway and brace ourselves for the postracial gales bound to come—such as this one.
Our multiracial, multidisciplinary, multisectoral guild remains as indistinct on the streets of the U.S. as my favorite restaurant was 13 years ago. We don’t have a name. We don’t hold up signs displaying our expertise. To the American people, our expertise simultaneously exists and doesn’t. It exists when people believe us. It doesn’t exist when people don’t believe us. Our remedies and reparations for racism are rejected when they go “too far.”
Because everyone, apparently, is an authority on damn near everything. I can tell an astrophysicist that she is wrong about the existence of extrasolar planets, and she can tell me that I am wrong about the existence of racism. Humility is dead. Expertise is losing out to the world of make-believe, where everyone knows it all, where the climate isn’t changing, where vaccines aren’t saving lives, where teaching our kids the truth is harmful, where anti-poverty programs aren’t better crime fighters than cops, where assault rifles aren’t used to commit mass murder, where Nikole Hannah-Jones doesn’t deserve tenure, where the 2020 election wasn’t legitimate, and where the original postracial project didn’t produce the infernal Trump presidency.
To use W. E. B. Du Bois’s words, “lies agreed upon” are king. Ignorance preyed upon is king. Patriotism as racism is king. The conspiracy theory is king.
Anyone can diagnose their nation as “not racist.” In the world of make-believe, who cares whether they can’t define what they mean by that? Who cares about definitions? Who cares about the vulnerability of kids to racist messages? Who cares about education? Who cares whether GOP state legislators are attacking the recognition of racism as they institute racist voting policies to maintain their power? Who cares about democracy? Anyone can be interviewed and listened to and taken seriously when they claim that racism doesn’t exist, when they vilify the 1619 Project, when they demonize critical race theory, when they slander anti-racism—when they wholly disregard racial inequity and injustice and violence. Anyone can participate in the new postracial project.
I watched Obama’s Iowa victory speech on a tiny mounted television with a stranger as my food cooled. I hardly realized that at that very moment, racial reality was cooling too.
I’ll never forget it.
“This was the moment,” Obama proclaimed that night.
This was the moment when the eagerness of many Americans to close the book on America’s racist past ended up closing the book on America’s racist present, which closed the book on America’s racist future, which wrote the book on how America ends.
“This was the moment,” Obama said again. “Years from now, you’ll look back and you’ll say that this was the moment.”
Indeed, this was the moment when the American people created the original postracial project that is bearing down on Americans yet again, like a knife over a nation’s heart.