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At the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation, Has the Race Myth Been Put to Rest?

01/11/2013 01:30 pm ET | Updated Mar 13, 2013

In the 150 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the confederate states, a nuanced historical understanding of the 16th president has developed. For reasons both moral and economic, Lincoln agreed to end slavery; but he also favored establishing colonies abroad for freed blacks. And the Great Emancipator once held a view that has proven remarkably -- and unfortunately -- resilient: At least until later in his presidency, Lincoln accepted the mythology that people of different skin colors constituted biologically different "races."

Over centuries, people constructed this mythology of race to suit various purposes. Here in the U.S., it made it easier to justify the subjugation of people of color, who were thought to be biologically inferior. In his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln made clear his perspective at the time, saying "there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality."

As we prepare for the second inaugural of the nation's first black president, we frequently hear that America is now "post-racial." In part, this implies that as a country we have come to recognize and repudiate the mythology of racial hierarchy and accept what science has long since proven, that biologically there is only one human species, only one human race. Yet the reality is that the mythology of racial hierarchy persists. This is not just about -- or even mostly about -- overt racists who explicitly see people of color as something less than human. Such people are still out there, of course. But the belief in racial hierarchy also persists in much more subtle ways, in the subconscious biases that well-intentioned individuals harbor without ever being aware of them.

This racial mythology is at work when doctors diagnose and treat black patients differently than white patients, even when they present the same symptoms. It is at work when judges impose tougher penalties on black defendants than on white defendants for the same crimes. It is at work when well-qualified black homebuyers wind up with high-cost subprime mortgages, while white homebuyers get low-cost prime loans. These instances are examples that the mythology of racial hierarchy has become so embedded in our institutions and everyday culture that it affects us without us even recognizing it.

Reelecting our first black president was a major step forward, but it still does not make us "post-racial." We still have a lot of work to do to bring hidden racial biases out into the open, discuss them forthrightly, and do what we must to put them behind us. This process will take time; great ideas take a while to spread, and new knowledge rarely takes hold overnight. But if we want to be truly post-racial in another 150 years, then we must accelerate our progress toward spreading awareness of race as a social construct, not a biological classification, or justification for persistent disparities in wealth, health, educational achievement or the distribution of opportunity.

Fortunately, the tools of communication that have emerged in just the last decade -- from affordable cell phones to online social networks -- give us a profound ability to accelerate progress. These tools have demonstrated their speed and power countless times in just the last couple of years. After the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, an online petition begun by his parents and amplified through Facebook and Twitter garnered nearly 2.3 million signatures. Although the Arab Spring has not yielded the democratic results that many hoped for, the role of digital media tools in giving an unprecedented voice to young people across the Middle East was undeniable. More recently, the organizers of protests in the wake of the brutal rape of a woman in India in December relied on text messaging and social media to mobilize supporters.

And communities around the U.S. are pointing the way toward using these tools to end, once and for all, the myth of racial hierarchy. In southeast Minnesota, for example, InCommons, an online community initiative, is hosting retreats to help young people learn about race and their own origins, and then to design anti-racist social media campaigns using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread what they've learned. These are the kinds of creative, bottom-up strategies that we should scale up in communities around the country.

Anniversaries are important opportunities for taking stock. On the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we recall that it was slavery, an institution built on a pernicious myth -- a belief in racial hierarchy -- that we have never properly confronted. It was that belief that perpetuated the enslavement of human beings and divided our union. With new communications tools at our disposal, we have a renewed ability to confront the myth. To achieve real and lasting equality, we must.