After Barack Obama won the presidential election I found myself in conversations with White people who were beside themselves. In their minds the election of a Black president meant that we had truly entered Dr. King's dream and America had become a nation where people are not "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Somehow on November 4th we had become a so-called "post-racial society.” But my Black friends and I are having none of it. We view the Obama Presidency as promising, but believe racism is alive and well and still a major factor in American life.
Now there's no denying that a great deal of people, Black and White, are optimistic about the Obama Presidency. But I believe that the source of the respective optimism comes from different places. For instance, here are two of the many text messages from Black friends that I received soon after Obama was projected as the winner of the election:
"Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so we can fly."
"They didn't want to give us our 40 acres and a mule, so we took 50 states and a White House."
I doubt White people were sending those types of text messages to one another on November 4th, and all joking aside both messages speak volumes about the way Black people perceive the "post-racial society."
Meanwhile, I believe the reaction of fair-minded White people to the Obama election falls into one of two categories. Either they think, "Obama represents a new day, and it shows that racism is not a major factor in the everyday lives of Black people." Or they believe that, "Obama's election doesn't mean the end of racism, but it does mean that Blacks and Whites can work more closely together to completely end racial injustice in American Society."
Though the first thought is a noble one, it's wildly naive. On the other hand, I believe the second reaction to be an accurate assessment of things -- as long as you take a 500 foot view. Things get messier, however, as you get to ground level.
Historically, from the Abolitionist movement of the 1800's through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, there have been significant examples of Blacks and Whites working together to make America a fairer place, but those efforts dealt primarily within the legislative realm. The notion being that once Black people were given the same opportunities as White people, all would be peaches and cream. The Obama Presidency is actually the zenith of this line of thinking. Yet if you go to numerous low-income Black communities today there remain a myriad of problems.
The post-racial mindset that the Obama team seems to be projecting is that the problems befalling low-income Black communities needn't be addressed as "race" problems. In his now famous "A More Perfect Union" speech, Obama said, "It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper."
I believe Obama's speech was designed to be uplifting for the post-racial era and for the purposes of the campaign it was. The problem is it didn't address the fact that Black people and White people have different narratives in America. If as Obama says, we want to invest in the education of black and brown and white children we have to acknowledge that culturally these children may have different needs.
Our book, Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African-Americans is a good primer on the struggles and victories of Black people in America and does so, I believe, without being divisive. In our book we make mention of a gentleman named Carter G. Woodson author of The Mis-Education of The Negro. In this classic book published in 1933, Woodson maintains that Black children in America aren't taught African American (then Negro) history and as such are educated solely in White culture and to be dependent on White people. Now this is arguably an overgeneralization but Woodson's book does resonate with many Black people and his book raises interesting questions. However, in the post-racial era, as posited by some, books like Woodson's or Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery by Na'im Akbar may be pushed further to the margins because they could be deemed divisive or outdated. After all, "Obama is now President, you can do anything you want" is the post-racial mindset.
For me such a mindset is harmful.
A story: my wife Taneshia is the Executive Director of the Trenton Downtown Association and each year TDA celebrates Trenton, New Jersey's storied history as the turning point of the Revolution War with an event called "Patriot's Week." This year, in acknowledgement of the pending Obama presidency, Taneshia commissioned four Black men, all dressed in colonial garb, to read the Declaration of Independence. It was a powerful image especially since at the time of the Revolution just like the rebel colonialists people of African descent also sought independence from their oppressors. It was well received by those in attendance but Taneshia was asked by a covering media reporter, "Why did you choose to emphasize that all the readers were Black?" The reporter followed up by saying that we're in a post-racial society and the Obama election was about our commonalities not our racial differences.
To me that demonstrates the paradox of the "post-racial era" thinking. Despite the sincere optimism many White people think it means that when we work together to solve some of societies daunting problems we no longer need to speak explicitly about race. Whereas to many Black people it means we can speak more openly about race and how we can use our experiences and narratives to turnaround many of the problems in our communities.
The next four years should tell us which perspective prevails.
Noted African-American entrepreneur Roland Laird, co-author of Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans, is co-founder of Posro Media, a Trenton, New Jersey-based company that produced the comic book series MC Squared: A Man With a Serious Game Plan and the syndicated comic strip The Griots. The company has worked and continues to develop a number of animated and documentary projects for film and television.