This week’s issue of Newsweek features a compelling article about the evolution of race relations at Princeton University (“Black in the Age of Obama”). By looking at the experiences of two African American Princeton students from the turbulent 1960s and comparing them to the college experiences of their daughters some thirty-odd years later, the story highlights the progress made as well as the new struggles faced by students of color on the Princeton campus in what the article calls the “the cutting edge of ‘post-racial’ America, where race isn’t supposed to matter anymore. Except when it does.”
The article is only four pages long, but it’s full of challenging ideas. For instance, there’s the subplot running throughout the narrative that questions the existence of a ”post-racial America.” Does an Obama presidency really mean race is now off the table? From the article:
Linked in the public consciousness to Barack Obama, the term “post-racial” has now expanded to encompass the era his election has ushered in. But in the real world, post-racialism is something of a mirage. Detroit is not post-racial. Neither is Congress, nor Wall Street, nor prime-time TV. Black people pretty much refuse to utter the word, Obama included. For most Americans, it’s little more than a convenient cable-news catchphrase.
But the heart of the narrative reveals how two students from the late ’60s, Henry Kennedy (’70) and Jerome Davis (’71), had to endure the racial tensions of the day, and the limited choices they had for survival. “With fewer than 20 African-Americans per class, ‘fitting in’ wasn’t an option,” the article explains. “Instead, undergraduates like Davis and Kennedy gravitated toward one of two roles: activist or invisible man.” In many ways, of course, that same dilemma remains today.
However, for Kennedy’s and Davis’s daughters, Alex and Kamille, the racial dynamic has been complicated by the fact that racism, or racialization, is no longer as clearcut as it was back in the days of brazen prejudice and legislated segregation. As the article’s authors observe, today “at post-racial, meritocratic Princeton, it’s often impossible to say where color ends and exclusivity begins.” Which, consequently, leads to the current brand of double consciousness that I address in my book–that is, the 21st-century angst of not knowing when something (a comment, a look, a policy) is racially motivated or when it isn’t. Here’s perhaps the article’s most penetrating observation—it’s “money shot,” if you will:
In a post-racial bubble, it’s no longer the initial incident that makes being black uncomfortable; when everyone has “gotten over” race, any controversy can be easily explained away as a joke, or a misunderstanding, or ordinary, colorblind Ivy League exclusivity. But while Henry Kennedy and Jerome Davis had an outlet for their concerns, Alex and Kamille don’t. Even worse, they have the uncomfortable burden of deciding whether they should even be concerned to begin with. As a result, they, like many young, elite African-Americans, can feel boxed in. When injustices do arise, there’s pressure to brush them aside. To do otherwise would be to think too clearly in racial terms—to clash too openly with post-racial expectations. Ignoring them entirely, though, might look like a retreat from community obligations. Everyone’s a loser and everyone shares the guilt.
Though this article spotlights the experiences of African Americans at Princeton, it’s really a case study for the larger issue of race in America today. How we’ve ”come a long way,” but how the cost of that progress has been a confusion about our new reality and a tendency to believe that we’ve tackled the problem, when in fact we’ve yet to have ongoing honest communication across racial and cultural lines (Hello, Eric Holder!). What’s more, our current racial progress has beget a new brand of prejudice and racial resentment that threatens to erect even larger barriers to true reconciliation (just check out this news report from today’s Chicago Tribune and look, particularly, at the reader comments).
“Race” articles like this Newsweek report are helpful in showing us yet another aspect of the cultural landscape today, but they often wind up leaving the reader discouraged or pessimistic about the notion that we’ll ever really move beyond the pain and frustration of race relations in eras past. What the article doesn’t mention is the reality of God’s grace and the power he gives us to heal, forgive, and build bridges across our current chasms. But, of course, first we must agree that there are still chasms.