Slouching toward post-racial: We thought Gene Robinson made an excellent point about the inauguration.
“The black president no longer,” the headline on his Washington Post column said. Robinson started like this:
ROBINSON (1/22/13): President Barack Hussein Obama’s second inauguration was every bit as historic as his first—not because it said so much about the nation’s long, bitter, unfinished struggle with issues of race, as was the case four years ago, but because it said so little about the subject.Robinson grew up black in South Carolina. He was born there in 1955. The fact that we have a black president isn’t old news for him, he quite convincingly says.
Reflect for a moment: A black man stood on the Capitol steps and took the oath of office as president of the United States. For the second time. Meaning that not only did voters elect him once—which could be a fluke, a blip, an aberration, a cosmic accident—but then turned around and did it again.
Reaction to the address took remarkably little notice of the fact that Obama is an African American. That seems to be old news.
But as he looked around this week, it seemed to be old news for pretty much everyone else, at least within the press corps:
ROBINSON: The truth is that it will take many years to fully assess the Obama presidency. The verdict will depend on what he accomplishes in his second term—and how his initiatives pan out in the coming decades. On health care and the long-term debt, in particular, my hunch is that Obama is taking a much longer view than his critics realize.We think that’s amazing too—amazing and deeply tremendous.
But here we are, talking about legacy, not race. Which is simply amazing.
As Robinson semi-notes, a great deal of this transformation owes to Obama’s steady demeanor and habits. But what we’re discussing is our progress toward a “post-racial” society.
That word was much discussed and much debated around the first inauguration. What might that word really mean?
It seems to us it means this:
White society became largely “post-ethnic” a good while ago. Within white America, there was a time when you were defined by your ethnicity—and when you might be punished for it. (You might not get the job. You might not get the girl.)
Within white America, those days are largely over. People don’t get punished for their ethnicity. For the most part, they get to decide if they want to be defined by where their ancestors came from.
Some Irish Americans are heavily involved in their ethnicity. Others are not. In each case, other people don’t really care. To use an old phrase, it’s all good.
Robinson is describing a world in which Obama has ceased to be defined by his race. As Robinson looked around this week, he saw his colleagues discussing Obama's legacy, not his (so-called) race.
They were discussing Obama as a president, sometimes in ways which struck him as dumb. But they weren’t discussing Obama as a black president.
We have a long way to go before our wider society is “post-racial.” But Robinson is noticing something real. In many places, not in all, 6-year-olds are going to school with a wide of array of classmates. Their parents married the people they chose. “Race” isn’t the same freighted subject it was a few decades ago.
They're in a better America.
Robinson noted something real. We have a long way to go—but it isn’t just journalists with Obama who are learning to let "race" go.
What we ourselves saw at the Giant: A few weeks ago, in a Baltimore supermarket, we saw a sight that made us go hmmm.
We saw a young black man, maybe 30 years old. He was wearing a Baltimore Ravens jersey.
The name on the back was this: FLACCO.
Just for the record, Joe Flacco must be the whitest guy in the whole NFL. (We don’t mean that as a criticism. And suddenly, he’s a big hero.) There’s nothing charismatic about him—and the Ravens have quite a few charismatic, widely-admired black players.
They're widely admired for obvious reasons. But this guy bought the FLACCO shirt. That’s the shirt he was wearing as he went around town.
We came to Baltimore in the tragic old days, in 1969. Racial lines were hard to cross in those days, for reasons everyone understands.
We thought that young man at the Giant made a terrific sight. We tried to think: Even twenty years ago, would he have been wearing that shirt?