When approaching this series, I had several personal conflicts. The most serious is one of political correctness. I’ve spent my life feeling uncomfortable when talking about race, struggling over the choice between “African-American” and “black,” followed by the guilt of pointing out race at all.
The arguments that we don’t need to talk about race and that any effort to is laced with white guilt turned into charity have skewed racial ideologies into denial of race as an issue. Political commentator and comedian Bill Maher said it best:
“The new racism is the denial of racism.”
As a country, we have abolished slavery, granted voting rights to everyone and elected a black president for two terms. Yet we still don’t see the problem in claiming to be “color-blind.”
The denial of someone’s ethnicity is not an acceptance of that person. Claiming to be color-blind is to say you are not comfortable accepting someone as they are, and you would feel more comfortable imagining that person has the same background as you.
This is a relevant argument in the political and judicial systems in America. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, there was an uproar over having a black president, but there were also people who claimed he was not the first black president because he is half white.
However when Bill Clinton was elected in 1993, there were few protests to claims that he was the first black president. It’s important to note this claim was not because of his skin color or that of his parents. Clinton’s birth into a single parent working class household, ability to play the saxophone and love of fast-food were reason enough to call him the first black president.
The comparison of these presidents points out a truth — race isn’t all about skin color in America. Sure, it’s an obvious indicator of difference, but there is a set of ideas attached to the racial group that can make one person “blacker” than another.
The idea of the black race being a gradient in which one person can be blacker than another makes it apparent that “whiteness” is something that can be achieved. Indeed, white is a central point that we use to measure other races. White people don’t even think of being white as a race. Race is everyone else.
Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison touched on the idea of hyphenated identities when it comes to race.
“In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
Civil rights leaders would have been disappointed to see the hyphenated identity of an African-American.
In an interview with an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Bryan McCann posited that if Martin Luther King Jr. were to walk around Baton Rouge, he would see the racial divide.
“He would look at the neighborhoods, poverty rates and see Baton Rouge as segregated. Its not legally sanctioned, but functionally we are an incredibly segregated society,” McCann said.
In recognition of this segregation, several institutions have put codes in place to encourage ethnic diversity. The most popular and controversial is affirmative action.
The opposition believes affirmative action is a punishment for the majority’s white, slave-owning ancestors and a reward for ancestral black slaves. They cling to the belief that America is no longer racist because we are finished with slavery and everyone can vote.
Let me be clear. This is not the point of affirmative action.
Affirmative action covers a wide range of policies. When LSU is performing a job search, it may state women and members of minority groups are encouraged to apply. This is a weak version of affirmative action that gives LSU a cover, should anyone question the disproportionately low number of ethnically diverse employees.
The point of affirmative action is to allow a candidate for any position, job or education a fighting chance when up against someone who was given more opportunities.
There may have a white applicant with more opportunities and probably more successes and a longer resume. Then there could be a minority applicant who works 10 times harder but has had fewer opportunities. That candidate seems like a risk to an employer, but not through any fault of their own.
“To oppose affirmative action is to assume that racism is self-correcting or done. Neither is true,” McCann continued as we discussed the pros and cons of affirmative action.
Those who claim affirmative action is not effective have a point, though. Historically, the group that has benefited the most from the policies are white women.
The oppressive history of America can only be interrupted by affirmatively helping those from previously excluded groups into positions that give them the opportunity to succeed. Otherwise we could create a permanent white supremacist society.
We have overcome much in the fight against racism, but we still have a long way to go before we are a post-racial America.
Jana King is a 19-year-old communication studies sophomore from Ponchatoula, La.