Barack Obama's historic presidential campaign and pending presidency has catapulted the concept of a "post-racial" America to the top of our politico-socio lexicon. The "post-racial" America, as some have called it, refers to a country that has moved beyond race (in an almost Colbertian way). It is touted by liberals and conservatives (though for different reasons) as evidence that the country is healing its racial divisions. It is a concept that is used in polite society to suggest a level of societal sophistication to which we all should aspire, while "focusing on race" or "getting bogged down by race" is the old way of thinking and shows a backward orientation. Thus, being "post-racial" is the frontier to be embraced and anything short of that is to be belittled. Celebrating a "post-racial" America is premature and those doing so may well be unwittingly leading a dangerous new attempt to overlook and ignore America's racial history and avoid public policy approaches to the systematic racial prejudice that still pervades our society. If we are beyond race, the argument can go, then why do we need new public policy to deal with racial issues? And if we don't need new policy, then we probably can do away with the old stuff too!
Let me be clear: I believe the country has come an incredibly long way as it relates to race. There is no question that African Americans of my vintage do not have to carry the burdens of race in the same ways that our parents and previous generations did. We do not have to live under the cloak of Jim Crow and threat of racial reprisals for the smallest of issues. That is a benefit for which we all, regardless of race, should be proud. We are getting closer to the promise of America that is held up as an example for all the world. However, getting closer does not mean we can see the finish line from here. On too many issues, race is still a big problem and electing an African American president doesn't mean they will magically go away.
Those who see America as "post-racial" may well be guilty of prematurely hoisting the "mission accomplished" banner. They should be aware of some unfortunate truths that still frame the world in which many Americans still live. For example, African Americans comprise nearly half of the 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States, but make up but 12 percent of the total population. African Americans also suffer from disproportionately high school dropout and poverty rates.
I believe that some of what ails Black America is self-inflicted. But I also believe that public policy at the local, state, and national levels have contributed mightily to this current state of affairs. "Post-racial" doesn't get us any closer to solving these problems; indeed, it can be seen as a polite diversion from a solution. I think we are better served by having a political discourse that acknowledges, respects, and embraces racial differences. That is a better alternative than our historical approach -- belittle those who look different -- or the new view on the horizon -- act like we don't need to talk about race anymore.
Michael K. Fauntroy is a professor, author, political commentator, and columnist. He blogs at: MichaelFauntroy.com.