Post-racialists often confirm their perspective by pointing to black and minority appointments to the nation’s elite positions, including the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land. Indeed, the president himself often perpetuates this “post-racial” trope. In his speech marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Obama described how “legitimate grievances” had “tipped into excuse-making” and “the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.” “And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity,” he continued, “the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.”
The president’s rhetoric on race is consistent with the following premises:
- The civil rights era has virtually ended structural barriers to black equality; remaining barriers are due to the legacy of past discrimination, the residual effects of concentrated poverty, and black folks’ own behaviors. After all, virtually all groups of Americans have faced some form of discrimination but managed to “get ahead” anyway.
- Blacks need to cease making particularistic claims on America and begin, in the president’s words, to “[bind] our grievances to the larger aspirations of all Americans.”
- Blacks need to recognize their own complicity in the continuation of racial inequality, as well as their own responsibility for directly changing their disparate position.
But if structural factors are largely artifacts of the past, what explains the marked and persistent racial gaps in employment and wealth? Is discrimination genuinely of only marginal importance in America today? Has America really transcended the racial divide, and can the enormous racial wealth gap be explained on the basis of dysfunctional behaviors?