'Race Isn't Supposed to Matter Anymore. Except When it Does.'

By Edward Gilbreath 04-22-2009

This week's issue of Newsweek features a compelling article about the evolution of race relations at Princeton University ("Black in the Age of Obama"). By looking at the experiences of two African-American Princeton students from the turbulent 1960s and comparing them to the college experiences of their daughters some 30-odd years later, the story highlights the progress made as well as the new struggles faced by students of color on the Princeton campus in what the article calls the "the cutting edge of 'post-racial' America, where race isn't supposed to matter anymore. Except when it does."

The article is only four pages long, but it's full of challenging ideas. For instance, there's the subplot running throughout the narrative that questions the existence of a "post-racial America." Does an Obama presidency really mean race is now off the table? From the article:

Linked in the public consciousness to Barack Obama, the term "post-racial" has now expanded to encompass the era his election has ushered in. But in the real world, post-racialism is something of a mirage. Detroit is not post-racial. Neither is Congress, nor Wall Street, nor prime-time TV. Black people pretty much refuse to utter the word, Obama included. For most Americans, it's little more than a convenient cable-news catchphrase.

But the heart of the narrative reveals how two students from the late '60s, Henry Kennedy ('70) and Jerome Davis ('71), had to endure the racial tensions of the day, and the limited choices they had for survival. "With fewer than 20 African-Americans per class, 'fitting in' wasn't an option," the article explains. "Instead, undergraduates like Davis and Kennedy gravitated toward one of two roles: activist or invisible man." In many ways, of course, that same dilemma remains today.

However, for Kennedy's and Davis's daughters, Alex and Kamille, the racial dynamic has been complicated by the fact that racism, or racialization, is no longer as clearcut as it was back in the days of brazen prejudice and legislated segregation. As the article's authors observe, today "at post-racial, meritocratic Princeton, it's often impossible to say where color ends and exclusivity begins." Which, consequently, leads to the current brand of double consciousness that I address in my book

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