Adam Mansbach 2008

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The ambiguous term ‘post-race’ and the supposed reality of a post-race America have made considerable inroads into the national lexicon and mindstate in the last few weeks.  The notion of an America no longer fixated on racial differences is largely predicated on the early success of Senator Barack Obama’s presidential run.  That and Senator Hillary Clinton’s failure to derail the Obama campaign through a strategy of persistent and pernicious race-baiting by the candidate and her high-profile surrogates. 

Soon after Obama’s much-parsed speech on race, The New York Times ran a lengthy article (link)
on the front page of its Sunday Arts section about artists in ‘post-race’ America.  It may be worth pointing out, given the brevity of the national attention span, that only a few months ago the notion of a black president flew in the face of all conventional wisdom about the biases of American voters.  And now the Newspaper of Record is musing about art in a world beyond race?

Well, not quite: the article was, in fact, solely about black artists (everyone else, it would seem, has been ‘post-race’ for awhile) and despite the titular catch-phrase, it offered no evidence to suggest that race is immaterial to the work of practitioners like Kara Walker and William PopeL – or, more importantly, that racism fails to figure in.

This distinction begins to illuminate the dangerous flipside of suggesting a ‘post-racial’ landscape. While the term suggests, perhaps correctly, that we are moving toward an acceptance of the multifaceted nature of identity -- learning to grapple with the idea that a human being can be both Kenyan and Kansan, in Obama’s case, or black and female and interracially married, in Kara Walker’s, or wear any number of ethnic/religious/sexual/political hats simultaneously, as is the case for each and every one of us – post-race almost inevitably seems to imply post-racism.  And while the complexity of human identity is certainly cause for celebration, and undoubtedly contributes to Obama’s appeal with some voters, his candidacy no more heralds an end to racism than Bob Dole’s heralded an end to discrimination against the handicapped.

There is the shifting politics of selfhood, and then there is structural racism, and confusing one with the other is a deadly mistake.  I witnessed a dramatization of this confusion recently at a public talk on race I gave in Minneapolis.  A woman in the audience stood up to explain that racism would be vanquished without any concerted effort on our part, and cited the baby on her hip as proof.  She was Korean, she said, and her husband was black and Irish.  Their son was all three.  He would break the machines that attempted to categorize him.

Although I appreciated her optimism, I had to explain that no such thing would happen.  Rather, her son would be forced to choose a box —and this, in fact, is the particular insidiousness of race.  It is a construct, not a question of biology.  It will not vanish in the face of multi-ethnicity, because it exists for a purpose, and that purpose is hierarchy, division, separation. 

This is also why the enthusiasm for President Obama as the leader of a ‘national dialogue’ on race is misplaced.  Not because we don’t need one – we surely do – but because few people are in a position to move the country toward a state of post-racism, and the president is one of them. 

Talking our way toward healing is a crucial, Herculean task, but it is not the task of a president.  Addressing structural racism on the level of policy is, whether in the form of dismantling a system of racist policing and biased judiciary that has lead to the epidemic incarceration of black men, or revamping a dysfunctional educational system that reinforces racial and economic disadvantage.  Post-race is an idea; post-racism is a moral imperative and a longstanding battle that is far from over.  We must not mistake the one for the other.


Adam Mansbach’s new novel, The End of the Jews, has recently been published.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing