The Race Factor

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THE PLANK FEBRUARY 6, 2007

The Race Factor

Stuart Taylor's National Journal column this week is about Barack Obama:

Obama embodies and preaches the true and vital message that in today's America, the opportunities available to black people are unlimited if they work hard, play by the rules, and get a good education.Obama also understands the spirit that must infuse any solution to racial and political polarization. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," Obama said in his 2004 convention speech. "There's not a black America, and white America, and Latino America, and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

Obama's "One America" rhetoric is appealing, but I hope it isn't used by Taylor and others to make arguments like the ones below:

Yes, a shamefully large percentage of black children do not get good educations. But that is not because of residual white racism. Indeed, some of the nation's worst--and most lavishly funded--schools are run by black-dominated local governments. Nor is "white privilege," to borrow the jargon of race-obsessed professors, a major obstacle to black success today.What of the fact that this son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansan, raised in Indonesia by his mother and stepfather, and in Hawaii by white grandparents, has not fully felt what it is to be a descendant of American slaves? None of that matters much. Obama's soaring success should tell black children everywhere that they, too, can succeed, and they do not need handouts or reparations. It should tell those white Americans who still don't get it that people with African blood can and regularly do achieve at the highest levels.

What exactly is Taylor's point here? That active/contemporary racism is not the principal cause of racial disparities today? Okay, fair enough. I'm not sure what "white privilege" means: Maybe that white people are less likely to live in neighborhoods like this? I'm also unclear what "handouts" are (Taylor enjoys using terms like this without defining them). As for his contention that Obama's election will "tell" racist white Americans that black people can reach high levels of achievement ... well, mark me down as skeptical.

There might be wonderful things about having a black president, but the idea that it will lead both black and white Americans to say, "Aha, look what can be achieved! No need for more 'handouts,'" is both simplistic and troubling. Racial "reconciliation," not to mention parity, is going to take quite a bit more work.

--Isaac Chotiner

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