By Krissah Williams Thompson
Sunday, November 30, 2008
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.
After my wedding, I was back out on the campaign trail, meeting voters in rooms where the crowds were once again all black or all white. I used to have one type of reaction to those kinds of racial divisions: a negative one. They seemed unnecessarily narrow or part of a larger problem. But my own wedding experience, and the way it showed me how clearly divided my own life is, made me more sensitive to the divisions I saw among voters.
In Harrisburg, Pa., I hung out at American Legion Post 733 -- which is predominantly black -- and, less than 10 miles away, the mostly white American Legion Post 420. Many of the men at both posts had worked together at the nearly shuttered Bethlehem Steel mill, standing side by side on the line but living separate lives. It was strange to see how similarly they dressed, most in black Army caps and sports tees. Most of them were Democrats, at the time divided between Obama and Clinton. Other than the color of their skin, they seemed to have everything in common. Yet their posts had never come together.
From the outside, I didn't have much in common with either group. But somehow I wound up with a lifestyle that closely resembled theirs in a certain respect: It is rooted in my own community, more than I ever thought it would be.
I grew up in Alief, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Houston that attracted first a large concentration of African Americans, then Asian Americans and immigrants from the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. At my 12th birthday party in the spring of 1991, my sister and I ended up being the only black children present because my friends in homeroom were white or of Mexican, Indian or Egyptian heritage.
Later, in the high school lunchroom, I found myself, like most in my generation, largely sucked into the old divisions of race at the "black table." During that time, I wore a popular T-shirt that said, "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand it." My sense of racial awareness began to solidify.
My high school was big and diverse, and I questioned the racial make-up of our classrooms. There were 4,000 students and 787 in my graduating class, but I was one of only two black kids in the AP honors courses. I thought the racial disparity had to be more of a systemic problem than some issue endemic to blacks.
Looking back, I realize that during high school I unconsciously developed a feeling of racial vulnerability, defensiveness and sometimes anger. It was those feelings that caused me to seek out people who I felt would understand. I didn't shut myself off from others, but I did draw closer to African Americans, who could empathize.
During my four years at the University of Texas, I was more open and developed friendships with folks from lots of backgrounds at the student newspaper, in women's groups and on campus leadership panels. But at the end of the day, my social life was rarely integrated. I joined a historically black sorority and chose to spend most of my social time with other African Americans.
In his speeches, Obama has never defined the kind of unity he seeks. It was commentators who dubbed his campaign a post-racial one and who have now declared that we live in a post-racial America. As Obama puts together his Cabinet, blogs and message boards are going crazy with discussions of whether he should be expected to appoint a team that's more racially diverse than were those of his recent predecessors. Others argue that his "post-racial" campaign should not succumb to such quotas.
What the president-elect said about race eight months ago in a speech in Philadelphia, which he called "A More Perfect Union," was much more complex than any cliched notion of unity. He described the country as being at a racial stalemate. "Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle," Obama said.
Cassandra Butts, a senior Obama adviser who is African American, told the Wall Street Journal in the closing days of the campaign that she doesn't consider Obama "a post-racial" politician. "When people say that, they seem to suggest that we are beyond the issue of race, that issues of race don't matter," she said. "I don't think that is necessarily the case. I don't think Barack considers himself post-racial in that way. He will tell you he thinks race does matter."
I agree. For me, the goal has never been negating race through colorblindness -- to do so would take a healthy discussion of existing racial disparities off the table. My aim is not for us to be post-racial but to embrace our cultural heritages while refusing to be confined by them.
I've barely recovered from the epic campaign that led to President-elect Obama, so it's a bit early to be thinking about how cold it will be in Iowa come December 2011 or what the crowds might look like. It's safe to assume that Obama's coalition will somehow be altered by the power of the presidency. Perhaps by the time 2011 arrives, the country will have become less racially stratified.
I hope that by then, we will find that an auditorium of white Iowans cheering on a black, Asian or Latino presidential candidate is commonplace. I also hope that in that auditorium, race and ethnicity will remain valued aspects of our identities, not forgotten or homogenized for the sake of some vague notion of post-racialism.
Krissah Williams Thompson is a Washington Post staff writer.