The response to the election of Barack Obama was a deliberate effort on the part of Republicans to stoke and benefit from an escalation in racial tensions. We saw this play out during the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, where Republicans made a deliberate effort to make the United States look like the kind of country where qualified white men are denied promotions and uppity affirmative action babies get nominated to the Supreme Court.
Of course, the realities of race and merit in post-racial America are completely different. The idea that, all things being equal, it's easier for a black person than a white person to get a job is literally untrue:
But there is ample evidence that racial inequities remain when it comes to employment. Black joblessness has long far outstripped that of whites. And strikingly, the disparity for the first 10 months of this year, as the recession has dragged on, has been even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field — in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.
College-educated black men, especially, have struggled relative to their white counterparts in this downturn, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for black male college graduates 25 and older in 2009 has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates — 8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent.
We're talking brothers with a college degree scrubbing whatever racially identifiable traits they can from their CV in order to get a job interview, all while Republicans in Congress and the Supreme Court rail against affirmative action.
The self-congratulatory coverage of Obama's nomination and eventual victory emphasized America's remarkable history in confronting issues of race -- while omitting the incredibly powerful social mechanisms that preserved slavery and then segregation for so long. The attempts to use religion to justify slavery, the pseudo-science of eugenics, the insistence that slavery wasn't actually all that bad -- these were all herculean efforts to rationalize unjustifiable behavior. They were fundamentally individual attempts to prevent the human conscience from being crushed by the weight of the sheer immorality of slavery. This is how injustice persists; human beings have an extraordinary ability to cajole themselves into justifying atrocity.
So now what we're dealing with is much different: A persistent but not deliberate racial bias that doesn't manifest in direct malice but merely a kind of ominous "preference" that results in devastating outcomes, where being black with a clean record makes you less likely to get a job than a white guy with a rap sheet. We were talking atrocities before -- how hard could it be to rationalize a job disparity, especially with a black man in the White House?
One of the reasons I've been irritated by the debate over the "stigma" of food stamps is that I'm not convinced by the argument that added stigma is necessary in order to prevent people from simply living off the dole. The most effective uses of this kind of social coercion come from peers and elders in the immediate community, not from outsiders wagging their fingers -- that's likely to encourage oppositional behavior in defiance of a society that looks down on you, not provoke you to find a job. The use of this kind of stigma strikes me as just another type of rationalization for ongoing racial inequities: They won't give you a job, then they shame you for trying to get help. After all, there's no real reason to feel bad if the person you're talking about is immoral and lazy, rather than affected by social bias that was supposed to disappear the second Obama took the oath of office.
On the flip side, if you're black, why dwell on racial bias when it's something you can't really control? It's obvious that racism doesn't make success impossible, and things are obviously better now than they once were. It seems almost silly to complain given the historical context, and it's not like whining about racism is going to help you get a job. The whole world is already telling you you can't do X, why tell yourself?
There's an incentive then, for everyone to downplay the lingering effects of racism -- it helps us all sleep better at night. Well, at least there's one for those of us who don't have to deal with the devastating racial bias people like Rush Limbaugh face every day.
-- A. Serwer