America in Black and White

Right now we may still be in the euphoria stage. All Americans, even many who voted for John McCain, may be enjoying the moral buzz of having chosen the country’s first African-American chief executive. But, sooner or later, tough questions will arise. The mainstream media’s loose and frequent use of the term “post-racial” to describe the Obama era foreshadows the discussion.

The first tough question is, of course: Exactly what is “post-racial” supposed to mean?

If it means that the United States is no longer, in any real sense, the “white man’s country” that it was 100 years ago, then we’ve definitely arrived. The U.S. president is not a prime minister; he is the embodiment of the nation and its state. And a substantial majority of the nation, widely dispersed across geographic regions, has chosen a man of African descent to embody us.

For nearly 300 years, from the late 1600s to the mid-20th century, a persistent undercurrent of racist mythology in white America equated the physical characteristics of sub-Saharan Africa with subservience, inferiority, and even savagery. At some deep level, white America needed that myth to justify its toleration of African slavery and later of the Southern system of disenfranchisement and segregation.

But now, after less than a half-century of legal equality between the races, that equation has been largely erased. That is not insignificant. And as the novelty wears off and our black president becomes a commonplace, the significance of the change will become even greater. People of African descent will be seen less and less as creatures of those old mythologies and more and more as folks among folks, Americans among Americans.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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