Was Nov. 4 The End Of Racial History?

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THE PLANK DECEMBER 4, 2008

Was Nov. 4 The End Of Racial History?

A recent review of Tom Sugrue's Sweet
Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
in the New
York Observer
makes a startling accusation. Sugrue, argues critic
Jonathan Liu, plods through decades of racial conflict and uneven progress
without ever considering “the potential and potency of a single transformative
racial moment … Sweet Land of Liberty
will forever be the last major work on race relations published before the astounding
uplift of The Change.”

That change, needless to say, is the election of Barack Obama as the nation's
first black president. Liu thus joins a growing number of voices--I can only
speak anecdotally, from conversations and disparate readings, but there have
been so many I've stopped counting--eager to proclaim Nov. 4 as the end of
racial history in America.
The idea that racism has ended with Obama's election is patently absurd, and
many readers will accuse me of constructing a straw man in suggesting it even
exists. Yet I am also sure that many readers have heard the same themselves--if
not shared the thought.

I should be open, at this point, about my relationship with Sugrue: He has been
a huge influence on my own work, both intellectually and personally; he blurbed
my forthcoming
book
on the aftermath of the King assassination, and my journal, Democracy,
will be reviewing Sweet Land of Liberty
in our spring issue. All of which just underlines what is already obvious: I
believe that, rather than rendering it anachronistic, Obama's election makes
work like Sugrue's--and, if I may be so bold, my own--all the more relevant.

History is as much about continuity as change, and the enduring lesson of
American racial history is that milestones are often taken as excuses for
continuing inequities. Well-meaning Americans may want to racial equality, but
they also want racial exculpation. They find it in milestones. The months after
the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed saw a sharp uptick in the number of white
poll respondents who said blacks had now won equality and should be less
aggressive in pressing for further change. What followed was decades of
backsliding on economic and social progress: The last four decades, as
sociologist Orlando Patterson points
out
, have been marked by paradoxical progress, toward both greater public equality
and private inequality--we as a country are more comfortable with the idea of
racial parity, even as we accept the increasingly harsh realities of
residential, economic, and educational segregation. Complacency and resentment
weren’t the causes, but they’re not insignificant, either.

Don't get me wrong--America
has made amazing progress over the last half-century, progress few countries
could dream of achieving. And Obama's election is certainly a milestone. But it
is also an easy blinder: A black man in the White House does nothing to change
the immediate realities of a poor black man living in Southeast
Washington. Reading
Sugrue--and any other civil rights history, for that matter--reminds us that
racial progress is real, but not teleological, nor uniform, and that symbolic
achievements can easily become excuses for backsliding down the road. 

 

--Clay Risen

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posted in: the plank, business, entertainment, environment, health, politics, social issues, barack obama, tom sugrue

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