“Why hasn’t America moved beyond the old, stultifying debate on race in the age of Obama?” asks this weekend’s New York Times.
Every time an issue related to race relations in the United States hits the news, we are inundated with references to the presumed ideal that President Obama purportedly represents – the Post Racial Society. Articles and news pundits fill the airwaves lamenting the shortfall of this generally undefined state of being. This has been happening increasingly since the day Obama was elected (literally, go back and check the editorial sections of major newspapers from November 7, 2008). I thought then (and said it that very day as a speaker at a conference on the multicultural media consumer), and think now, that this should stop. Here’s why:
New Ways of Thinking Require New Language
In order to achieve what I think is implied by “Post Racial Society”, which I will define as a new era of greater equality in the historically unjust relationship between Black people and non-Hispanic white people in the U.S., we need to dump the inherently flawed phrase “Post Racial Society” and replace it with new language. I believe that this phrase was popularized by pundits over the age of 45 (and closer to 55 year-old Baby Boomers, who are 85% white and 60 million strong vs. 50% non-white for generations that follow). Let’s break the phrase down.
“Post” = after; to get past. This idea suggests we are going to, or even more, should get past acknowledging differences in skin color. I think this idea, which generated the vaunted “colorblind” society idea, was brought into Boomer popular consciousness by an interpretation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But in fact, King did not call for us to “get past” race, but rather embrace it – “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
My theory is that those who created and now routinely use “Post Racial” are well intended, but are actually propagating a negative racial paradigm, albeit unwittingly. The idea we should stop acknowledging skin color, and get past it, to me suggests there is something inherently wrong with differences in pigmentation and all that it represents. With skin color often come distinctive traditions, cultures and elements of personal identity that are deep, rich and formative. How do you get past this, and really should you?
Acknowledging a key dimension of a person’s identity is accepting them, not overlooking it. According to Essence’s 2010 “State of the African American Women” Study, 25% of African American Millennial women have inter-racial dating relationships. Do we think they don’t notice their partner’s skin color? In this same study, 83% of all non-Hispanic white respondents, women 18-64, think that interracial marriage is acceptable for their kids. Interracial marriages are skyrocketing, and, demographically speaking, have nowhere to go but up. It’s not colorblind. It’s color-aware.
It might make sense to get onto this bandwagon soon. McDonald’s does 40% of its U.S. business with ethnic minorities, and half that group is under 13 years old. Over 45% of “young people” today in the U.S. are either African American or Hispanic.
Let’s ditch the whole “Post” concept.
Now onto “Racial.”
Racial, or race = There are several definitions that relate to “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.” However there is one definition that doesn’t get into the mix. It is the notion that race is an artifice, at least as it relates to the genetic and anthropological definition. As David Hollinger has observed, “Two of the most eloquent non believers in race, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Tzvetan Todorov, have carried on a vehement debate over whether the word race should be placed in quotation marks within the pages of a book about the role of race in literature, the contributors to which agreed that there was no such thing as race.”
Why is this important? Many assumptions of racial supremacy are predicated on the false belief of immutable genetic distinction. In fact, as Christopher Hitchens recently wrote, “One of the great advantages possessed by Homo sapiens is the amazing lack of variation between its different “branches.” Since we left Africa, we have diverged as a species hardly at all. If we were dogs, we would all be the same breed. We do not suffer from the enormous differences that separate other primates, let alone other mammals.”
Here is the conundrum. On the one hand, acknowledging skin color and all its attributes is needed. On the other, wrapping them into a generally misunderstood term of “racial”, which is larded with historical assumptions of genetic distinctions and therefore deterministic beliefs of who is better than whom is not a great thing. To move this conversation forward, I agree with David Hollinger that we need to migrate to the term “ethnic.” While ethnic is not totally guilt free (think “ethnic cleansing”), it generally is a less value-laden term than “racial” in the United States. I think that ethnicity has what we need – implications of strong societal bonds, deep traditions, distinctive value systems yet is more malleable than “racial,” which feels like it will include elements that falsely suggest inherent genetic difference.
Some good news in this arena is that, finally, ethnic attitudes seem to be shifting in a monumental manner. In addition to the interracial attitudes already cited, in study after study, there is a snowball effect underway relating to cultural openness. How did we get here? What forces are driving this new reality? Simply put, demographics, technology, globalization and urbanization.
Urbanization – between 1970 and 2009, urban centers in the U.S. grew dramatically. “Metropolitan areas housed more than 80 percent of the U.S. population and produced nearly 90 percent of U.S. GDP during the 2001 to 2005 period. In 2005, for example, the metropolitan area with the largest GDP—New York city—produced over $1 trillion in final goods and services, while the smallest metropolitan area—Lewiston, Idaho—produced only $1.5 billion in final goods and services; a more than 600-fold difference in the size of each metropolitan area’s economy,” according to the 2009 Federal Reserve Report. The top 15 urban areas in the U.S. account for the majority of total economic activity. In the U.S., this is the “market.”
Demographics – between 1970 and 2000, the Afro-American and Hispanic market in the U.S. went grew to 30% of the U.S. population, with spending power going to $2.5 trillion in 2009. The 2010 Census is expected to re-confirm and expand this incredible growth. What is not measured, and is underappreciated in our view, is how this demographic phenomenon is shaping, changing, influencing and re-defining all of the U.S. consumer landscape – creating a new ethnic sensibility.
Technology – the exponential growth of consumer technology is of course changing everything for everyone. Consumers are now empowered in so many ways, able to shop, view, communicate, experience, define and transact in ways unforeseen just a few short years ago. As a result, consumers are more empowered than ever before. They are creating new identities for themselves, accessing information and creating new markets and forums for economic activities. One major impact on consumer identity is the ability to create multiple identities as a consumer – traveling across a spectrum of interests and affinities that allow for both a broader and deeper interpretation of one’s interests. We are embracing differences and self definition.
Globalization – With the rapid influx of technology comes the erosion of traditional borders and the realization of the promise and possible competitive threat of the global marketplace. U.S. consumers today are becoming increasingly cognizant of other value systems, market dynamics, and values. In some cases, our very identity as a people is being challenged by these other worldviews. In fact, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this knowledge is more and more of a prerequisite for economic and social advancement, and maybe for our very existence. Economically, no longer can the American car industry simply serve a domestic U.S. market, insulated from foreign competition and foreign growth opportunities. Today, most Fortune 500 companies see their growth coming from international markets, particularly BRIC countries Brasil, Russia, India and China. In fact, current predictions place China as the largest global economy before 2050, the same year the U.S. becomes a “minority majority” country.
So, within the borders of the U.S., outside the borders of the U.S. and with the increasingly diminishing borders of the globe, the U.S. consumer market has the more and more reason to understand and be understood on the basis of cultural identity and a values orientation. U.S. companies are starting to respond, and require new thinking, new organizational structures and new tools of analysis and execution to serve this dynamic.
As Hollinger puts it, we need to “[build] upon the current generation’s unprecedented appreciation of previously ignored cultures..”.
How about we use “Intercultural New Mainstream” or New Mainstream for short? Since I come from the marketing world, multicultural marketing at that, this is rooted in my professional experience. Intercultural means “sharing of culture,” whereby different ethnicities can (and by the way have always) adopt elements of one another’s culture. The history of the U.S. is replete with this experience, and African American culture has often set the trend.
This impacts everyone
I think this shift is becoming increasingly more important, as less empowered non-Hispanic whites are starting to wonder where they net out in the “Post Racial Society.” If we are accepting each other more in a color-aware manner and judging each other on the content of our character, where does that lead? Shirley Sherrod’s poignant personal story on racial reconciliation speaks of the shared experience of disempowerment between poor blacks and poor whites. Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), a famous Scots-Irish author, argues in Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege society should be allocating benefits on the basis of socio-economic status, not skin color, except for blacks. In a NY Times editorial entitled Roots of White Anxiety, Ross Douthat recently warned of white concerns, citing a comprehensive study titled “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life” that suggests poor whites are being penalized in admission to elite colleges
These examples speak to the need for a return to, or perhaps for the first time the realization of what we declare to be fundamentally American – Meritocracy, Personal responsibility and Equality. Noah Feldman argues in The Triumphant Decline of the WASP,that the WASP value system (eventually) allows for non-members to gain in social status through hard work, education and personal achievement, believing that “Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion”.
In his seminal work, The Ordeal of Integration, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson asserts that the path to ethnic reconciliation starts with a “path of personal autonomy,” with a moral declaration and focus on personal responsibility. While not negating the structural and systematic dimensions of racial inequality, Patterson argues for an individual self determination which is quintessentially American.
Maybe, if we change the language from “Post Racial Society” to the “New Mainstream,” and allow the principals of our American ideal to better guide us, the stultifying debate can change. We can edge closer to Dr. King’s observation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Maybe, in accepting new language, appreciating progress and acknowledging our ability to self-define, the next generations will change the debate.
“I took his comment as a measure of change, and a reflection on how quickly norms evolve. A few decades ago, the prospect of a black president was all but unimaginable. Until a viable candidate emerged, it was deeply implausible. Last January, it was remarkable. And today, it often passes unnoticed. That’s how quickly the impossible becomes the pedestrian. It’s the importance of shattering barriers – once they fall, it’s tough to see how they ever stood, or why.” – Slate Magazine blog, January 2010.
Maybe, younger generations have already figured a lot of this out. I hope so.prevnext