When Barack Obama was elected president four years ago, we heard a lot of talk about it being a watershed moment in leading us to a post-racial America. If a black man could be elected president, race wasn’t going to matter so much, the theory went. A glance at recent headlines shows we’re nowhere close to this — and I’m not sure we ever will be.
The immediate reactions to the shooting of Trayvon Martin point toward just how deep the fracture lines lie. Blacks — and especially black politicians — lined up strongly against shooter George Zimmerman. The initial narrative we heard was that young black men are under attack in America by white people. (Complicating matters is the fact that Zimmerman is half Hispanic, which muddies the waters a bit, but people selling the narrative are willing to ignore that detail. Of course, calling Zimmerman white since one parent was white is a bit like calling Obama white for having a white mother.)
Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have been active in calling for Zimmerman’s arrest and punishment. Barack Obama was quick to align himself with Martin when he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” And the New Black Panther Party offered a $10,000 bounty for the “capture” of Zimmerman. I wonder if they would have been upset and ready to agitate if the races had been reversed.
On the other hand, gun groups were quick to start a defense fund for Zimmerman. Texas attorneys offered $10,000 toward his defense. And plenty of people were quick to believe Zimmerman’s side of the story. I wonder if they would have been so quick if it had been a black homeowner who had shot a white teen-ager.
Whether we want to admit it or not, most people still see the world through a racial lens. We assume certain things about people based on their race, especially when combined with certain social or educational factors. A black male who dresses as though he just stepped out of a rap music video is seen as a potential threat by most people. A white man in a suit is generally seen as safe and is accorded some deference. A white man dressed like a blue collar worker is assumed to be a simpleton. An introverted Asian is assumed to be smart. And so forth. Most people have these stereotypes — and race plays an active role in most of them.
The only thing Obama’s election four years ago meant is that enough people were sick of eight years of George W. Bush that they weren’t going to vote for the GOP nominee. That’s it. The fact that so many people are now willing to consider a black candidate is a good thing — and that’s definitely more widespread. Obama’s success in 2008 and Herman Cain’s success in the Republican presidential race before he imploded both say that voters are more willing to look past a candidate’s race.
But when given a choice, most blacks are going to vote for a black. Most whites are going to vote for a white. Most Hispanics are going to vote for a Hispanic. That’s just the way humans are. We like to support people who look like us and are from the same places we are. We’re always going to give a slight advantage to people who are more like us.
Humans are tribal. We may hide it for the most part, at least in the ways that used to lead to regular wholesale slaughter of tribes, but we have a strong need to identify with something — and to see “the other side” as the enemy. Just look at the intensity of hatred between fans of sports teams, in many cases. I’ve known rabid fans who wouldn’t even date fans of their rivals. It was too controversial for them.
If race suddenly quit existing, humans would find some other way to divide up and hate each other. Remember the Star Trek episode about the planet where the people where black on one side and white on the other? The people who were black on the right side oppressed the people who were black on the left side.
If we reach some future world hundreds and hundreds of years from now when there’s been so much mixing of races that everybody looks the same racially, there will be something else. It might be earlobes (attached or not). It might be eye color. It might be a million things. The only thing I’m sure about is that people will find excuses to hate the people they see as “the others.”
We’re not approaching the day of post-racial America, and I don’t think we ever will be. We have to recognize that we’re tribal and accept that these divisions are deeply embedded in us. It’s a great goal to treat everybody the same — and I’m all for it — but I’m not naive enough to believe we’re going to live in a world like that.
Race still matters. Sadly, it probably always will.