Historical roots notwithstanding, the Shirley Sherrod affair yet again points out that we’re addressing the wrong problem. President Obama offered that rationale in his now famous Philadelphia speech when he suggested that some of us were stuck in an old racial paradigm that no longer fits the national reality. He went further to insist the new paradigm was quickly moving to a post racial space where whites were less prejudice and could go beyond race to real problems like health care reform and economic recovery.
Coining this space as post racial is at best a reflection of hope that our nation has traveled past its intractable and tortured legacy. After a week of egg-on-the- face of venerable institutions ranging from the White House to civil rights organizations to cable news networks, who could deny that we remain locked in a racial space.
What President Obama got right is acknowledging a new racial reality. But he is not alone in his failure to come to terms with understanding the evolving, new order. It is not framed by a false either/or proposition that tracks between the Jim Crow edicts of the 1950’s or color blind enlightenment of the 21st Century. Even if the racial order of earlier decades is largely behind us, race as an issue remains salient and inescapable on the American landscape.
The old order is based on the notion of explicit racial hostility of individuals against other individuals, reflected in explicit institutional policies like segregation of schools and prohibition of interracial marriage. Because race was explicit and we could see its workings everywhere, we assume that if race were not deliberately injected into our policies the issue would be solved.
But what if racial arrangement could be driven by something other than explicit and conscious racial policies? We can tackle this by understanding the three parts to the new racial order.
One is that much of the work of sorting by race is done by policies and interactions of institutions. Take the resegregations of schools by race throughout the United States. This results from drawing school boundary lines and housing policies. The outcome is that children of color continue to be isolated, not just from white children but also from well-resourced, high performing schools. While this segregation happens by “race-neutral” policies, the outcomes, seemingly free of explicit racial hostility, are predictable, structural racialization.
The second aspect of the new racial order requires a different understanding of how the mind works. Many of our feelings and thoughts are affected by what happens at a subconscious level. This is not just true about race, but every human encounter. The vast majority of our cognitive and emotional processes are less than conscious. There is clear evidence that most of us have strong beliefs supporting both racial fairness and racial anxiety. It is not obvious which will be most dominant in a given situation. Negative stereotypes that permeate our culture make positive associations with racial minorities difficult, even when our conscious values are egalitarian. If we realize that we are experiencing racial anxiety, we can check ourselves and tap into our higher values.
There are ways to measure negative anxiety and support our more conscious values of racial fairness. In one test of implicit bias, respondents are more likely to see a smile on the face of a white person than a black person. This negative association can be shifted by positive images, stories and exemplars of black people.
The third realm of race awareness is through the conflict with our conscious value which can make it even more difficult to confront implicit feelings. One of the least effective ways to resolve this racial conflict is by denying to see it. Race conflict doesn’t go away, even if it is ignored.
The White House and many liberal pundits have been trapped by the false either/or paradigm that refuses to accept the new racial order. The net result is pandering and/or caving to the right-wings’ insistence that to notice race is itself racist. The default position for those embracing a “post racialism” is to retreat to simple platitudes that deny they see it.
Our unconscious bias and institutional policies cannot go it alone. We need to be fortified with a new racial language. The choice is to decode structural racialization and implicit bias or be consigned to a confused post racial world with no translation or escape.