I'm Not Post-Racial
For 18 months, I traveled the country interviewing voters. Not one of them uttered the word. It's not a word my friends or I ever use, so I probably heard it first on cable news or read it in a newspaper. And now everybody's throwing it around more than ever.
It's offered as a congratulatory term or more often posed as a question: Is America post-racial? What does that mean? That we've left race behind, or that race is a problem that has been overcome or can now be ignored?
The first time I recall seriously mulling the concept of "post-racialism" was last December. I was sitting in the auditorium of a high school in Spencer, Iowa, a small town where a videographer and I were talking to locals before the caucus. Apart from the candidate's body man and a couple of Secret Service guys, Barack Obama and I were the only black people in the room. And the room was going wild for Obama.
As a 29-year old rookie campaign reporter, I was too much of a political novice to predict how far the Illinois senator would go, but after my experience that day, I was sure that the country had been moving steadily away from our historical racial paradigm. It shook me to think that I hadn't noticed it in my own life. That auditorium full of rural Iowans felt post-racial. It gave me a chill. I liked it.
Still, as exciting as it was to see that all-white Obama-maniac crowd, and the multi-racial crowds that later rallied for him and celebrated his victory, the term post-racial itself has become disconcerting. It means moving beyond something -- and I don't want to move beyond everything it suggests. Post-racialism is relatively easy to understand in a standing-room-only sports arena or at a campaign rally, and it will probably be evident at Obama's inauguration celebrations, where people of all different backgrounds will stand together and cheer. But post-racialism outside that political pageantry gets more complicated. It means the loss of so much that I cherish about who I am and where I come from. Is a colorblind America really what we are striving for? Isn't the point to live lives that are open to differences but still celebrate our unique cultural heritages, family traditions and religions?
I asked those questions in the dozens of cities and towns I traveled to after I visited Iowa and back in the predominantly black Maryland community where I live. And I discovered that the wonder of that Iowa auditorium -- like the diverse mass rallies Obama held in Austin, Portland, Denver, Chicago and other cities -- was short-lived. In everyday life, the people I interviewed in beauty salons, office parks, churches, American Legion halls, suburbs and small-town squares had hardly moved beyond the boundaries of race. And I had to acknowledge that neither have I.
During the long Democratic primary campaign, some voters I talked to worried that racism would curb Obama's hopes. In South Carolina in October 2007, I met hairdresser Margaret Bell, a 63-year-old African American and ardent Hillary Clinton supporter. She was sure that Obama would lose because of his race.
I went back to see Bell after Obama won in Iowa, and she was perplexed. The lifelong Democrat still did not believe that a black man could become president. Bell's shop is in a mostly black Charleston neighborhood that had undergone white flight a decade ago and been left to deteriorate. Her clients are all black women, most of them in their 60s. She can spend an entire day between home and work interacting with only black people. She had no idea -- and no way to know -- whether white voters would support a black candidate. And everything in her immediate experience seemed to indicate that they wouldn't.
But of course, they did, both in the South Carolina primary, where Obama won by nearly 30 percentage points with support from 24 percent of the state's white voters, and in the general election. Bell was forced to embrace a new idea of race in America because she'd been wrong about those white voters. She shouted and cried on election night and called Obama's win "mind-boggling," but now she and many others I interviewed are back to their mostly racially isolated lives.
Between the South Carolina primary and the rush of states that voted Feb. 5, I planned my wedding in Houston. For me, the event was an opportunity to bring together the key people in my life, those who have had the greatest impact on me from childhood to adulthood.
All but a handful of people on my list -- which included childhood friends, preschool teachers, friends of the family, sisters and brothers from church, former bosses and colleagues -- were black. My husband, whose mother is Thai and whose father is African American, had a similar list. In that sunny chapel this summer, 90 of the 100 guests who witnessed our ceremony were black. I flipped through the picture books at the chapel and saw similar racial divisions for most of the couples, whether they were white, black, Asian or Latino.