Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Myths of Transcending Race and Post-Racialism

Over the past several days, the world has been treated to many comments about "transcending race" and the beginning of a "post-racial" era in the United States because Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States. According to some commentators, Obama was elected because he somehow "transcends race." Because Obama supposedly "transcends race," the United States can now consider itself in a "post-racial" era. Such comments demonstrate how poorly the social construct of race is understood, the equally poor understanding about unconscious racism and its influence, and how the commentators project their own cultural incompetence onto someone like Obama, whose identity suggests merely a cultural difference to be navigated, not a cultural defect to be "transcended."

Barack Obama understands and accepts his racial identity, as any reader of his books will know. Yet, his writings also demonstrate that Obama does not consider his racial identity something to be transcended. He is a black man in a multi-racial world, and is as comfortable with his biracial identity as he is blood type. Neither factor defines Obama's character, intellect, political skills, or world view. The idea that Obama "transcends" his racial identity is as absurd as stating that Obama "transcends" being left-handed.

What the talk about Obama "transcending race" and that his election signals the start of a "post-racial era" actually demonstrates is our poor understanding about the impact of cultural incapacity and racism, be it conscious or unconscious, on even supposedly informed analysis and reflection about human conduct. The truth is that racial minority group members are not prevented from success because of their race. Racial identity does not make a person more or less thoughtful, articulate, gracious, civil, and competent. However, people have historically used racial identity to reward some people with unmerited advantages, while penalizing others with unmerited disadvantages, in the ongoing competition for power, wealth, and influence in the United States.

Obama's election marks the first time in U.S. history when racial identity has not worked that way. However, we should not distort its meaning by declaring that Obama somehow "transcended race," was a "post-racial candidate," or that his election has birthed a "post-racial era." As long as we think that racial identity must be "transcended," rather than considered merely an incident of humanity, race will continue to be a social construct used for issuing unmerited rewards and penalties to people we consider culturally different.

People whose racial identity is different do not justify our automatic fears, suspicions, and misgivings. Regardless to racial identity, every person has the wonderful potential to contribute joy, truth, and worth to our society and deserves acceptance as a morally accountable soul of inestimable worth. To perceive people whose racial identity is different from one's own in that light is not a matter of "transcending race," but an exercise in rejecting racism as a legitimate factor in the way we form judgments about and interact with others. Absent racism and its unwitting impact on how we think and behave, no one would speak of others needing to "transcend race," in order to merit approval or disapproval. We need a "post-racism" era, not one that is somehow "post-racial."

Obama did not transcend race, nor did the Americans who cast their votes for him, because no person can transcend racial identity, either their own or that of anyone else. What Obama and most American voters did was refuse to allow the decision on who should lead our nation to turn on racism, meaning the view that Obama is somehow less worthy to be trusted to lead the nation on account of his racial identity. Theirs was not color-blind decision-making which ignored the reality of Obama's racial identity, either for Obama or the voters who supported him. Rather, it was race-neutral decision-making, which acknowledged Obama's racial identity but refused to vest it with the illegitimate power to disqualify Obama from being elected on account of his racial identity.

Rather than speaking about a color-blind or "post-racial" society, the pundits and other observers of the Obama election should hope that it marks a society committed to "post-racism." We are not likely to do so, however, if we cannot or will not accurately judge what his triumph means.

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