November 17, 2008
The chattering classes on the post-racial right say Barack Obama's win is one more nail in the coffin of affirmative action. It proves blacks are equal, they say, and therefore they don't need "special considerations" anymore. Abigail Thernstrom wrote it in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.
Maybe they're right, and gays' attack on blacks for voting to ban gay marriage is the proof. Since when have blacks been the target of left-wing opprobrium about the way they vote? At leastsince Obama was elected president.
Imagine if Proposition 8 had won and John McCain had pulled out a squeaker. Would California's black voters still have been singled out as turncoat oppressors? Probably not.
But things have shifted. It wasn't too long ago that condescending liberals routinely stripped minorities of any moral accountability, as if they were children. More than a few campus race warriors argued with straight faces that African Americans could not be racist; it was impossible. Difference plus power, they insisted, equaled racism. Those with no power, therefore, could not be racist, and by extension, they were unlikely to be bigoted in other ways as well.
The ascension of an African American to the presidency changes that calculus, primarily because of the symbolism of a black man in the White House. I was struck by a clip I saw on the local news. A dejected gay protester at a Proposition 8 march essentially argued that blacks got theirs -- in the form of a president -- but did nothing to help the little guys. "We're the last minority left," he said plaintively. Whether he knew it or not, he was accusing blacks of doing what many other ethnic groups have done, joining the mainstream by stepping on the group below them.
I hate to say it, but that's the American way -- a constant struggle by outsiders to become insiders. The competition isn't always pretty, and it's not likely to go away. At any given moment in our society, there are "in" groups and "out" groups, and those who are in will struggle mightily not to be associated with those on the outs. That's why, in this era of anti-Muslim sentiment, Armenians tend to blurt out that they are Christians, and why, during World War II, Chinese Americans wore buttons that emphatically declared that they were not Japanese Americans. Much as academics and journalists have created the romantic narrative that all minorities are locked arm and arm in a collective struggle against oppression, it's not true.
For too many years now, Americans on both sides of the aisle have nurtured a linear view of racial progress. They may disagree on the timing, but they both speak the language of transcendence, overcoming and getting beyond race. But if the controversy about blacks and Proposition 8 tells us anything, it's that, even as discriminatory barriers fall, groups in our diverse society will continue to jostle for power, position and whose vision of the country will prevail.
Paradoxically, even as critics are trying to make black voters morally accountable for their votes, they continue to lock African Americans into their traditional racial roles. Implicit in the criticism of black support for Proposition 8 is the idea that, as historically oppressed people, African Americans should have greater empathy for gays. The assumption here is that they cast their ballots as a liberal or even progressive bloc of "black voters."
But the reason blacks supported Proposition 8 is most likely a matter of religion, not race. As Madison Shockley, pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad (and an opponent of Proposition 8), told The Times: "Black folks go to church ... and the churches they go to tend to be very traditional." Many observers suggest African Americans didn't cast their ballots in competition with another group (the way whites voted to end affirmative action via Proposition 209 in California in 1996) but as Christians with a fundamental belief about how to define marriage.
I don't buy the argument that, two weeks ago, blacks suddenly achieved absolute equality with whites. But black support for Proposition 8 may indeed be post-racial. Unfortunately, despite all our hopes, getting "beyond race" may not be as utopian as it's cracked up to be. If we all insist on keeping score on which group voted with or against us, it could get even uglier.
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