The 'Post-Racial' Conversation, One Year In

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With the election of President Obama, the phrase "post-racial" gained wider use. One year in to Obama's term, Ralph Eubanks, author of The House at the End of the Road, and Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal define the term and the conversation around it.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

After Barack Obama was elected president, in the days leading up to his inauguration, many people heard, for the first time, the term post-racial. It signified a new era brought about by the election of the first African-American president. Many people believed or hoped or wanted or expected that the new presidency would change how we talk about and how we experience race in this country.

On this Martin Luther King Day, almost a year after Barack Obama was inaugurated, are we closer to becoming a post-racial country? How do you define post-racial? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later this hour, getting effective medical help to Haiti. But first, post-racial America. Joining us now here in Studio 3A is Ralph Eubanks. He's the author of �The House at the End of the Road.� Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. RALPH EUBANKS (Author, �The House at the End of the Road�): Thank you. Thank you very much for having me here.

ROBERTS: Let's start with this term, post-racial. How do you define it?

Mr. EUBANKS: I think there are two popular definitions of post-racial. I think the first definition is that we are - it's where race is no longer an issue or an impediment to progress in American society. I think that's one way that it is often defined. Another way that it is defined is that moving - that post-racial means a color-blind society where race is not an issue. We are all Americans, and we're just completely color blind. So, there are issues with both of those definitions, and where we're actually moving is somewhere in between those.

ROBERTS: Do you use either one of them?

Mr. EUBANKS: I often use post-racial in talking about the direction we're going because that seems to be the popular term that's being used. But I always say that saying that we are post-racial implies that we've had a conversation in American society about race. And that conversation is very much continuing right now, which is what I believe is happening. And...

ROBERTS: But you think it's begun.

Mr. EUBANKS: I'm not sure that it has begun. I'm not even sure that we can actually there get, just given where we have been historically and where we have been just in, really, in the past year. I mean, look at everything that's happened in the past year. We've seen the rise of the tea parties, the Birthers - so seeing a lot more, what I could call, dog-whistle racism, where people are talking about something and saying it is not about race, but race is a very thin subtext to the message that's getting out there.

ROBERTS: And so if people are denying that things are about race and actively not talking about race, that almost sounds like we've taken a step away from a post-racial society.

Mr. EUBANKS: It does seem that if we have taken a step away. I think there was a great deal of hope that we were moving in that direction. But I think that -I mean, I think there's another component of this, too. So you have these two very different views of what a post-racial society is. And then you also have, on the other side, people talking about this real America, which is - real America implies that it is - well, I say that's 1950s America, where people -members of minority groups are invisible, and we can't really go back to that. We're not going to be going back to that.

Our demographics - it's denying where our demographics are actually taking us. And as I said, I don't think we are going to be post-racial. I think what we're looking at is becoming a multi-racial society with a lot of different components to it. So that's why I said there are those two definitions, and where we're going is somewhere in between that. And a lot of that depends on, over the next 20 years, where our demographics take us.

ROBERTS: From your point of view, is a post-racial society, by either one of those definitions, something to be hoped for? Is it an optimistic view?

Mr. EUBANKS: I think it is something to be hoped for. I always say that the post-racial is an ideal, and it's what - we should always be striving toward the ideal. But in looking at what that ideal is, as I'm looking at this issue myself in my own work, I am deconstructing both of those ideas of a post-racial society and trying to look at the lines of where all of these things are coming together into what is the reality of it. Can we be post-racial, a completely post-racial society? No. Are there elements of that post-racial ideal that will come into play in our society? Yes. And that is going to be a matter of time.

It's also going to take perhaps another generation. I think we're seeing a big change in attitudes about race among the millennial generation, where race is not as much of an issue for them. Issues of justice are a paramount for them rather than race, which is a great thing for us to be talking about on Martin Luther King's birthday, because I always think about a line from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail": Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And that is what is really, I'd say, propelling the millennials right now rather than race. I think those of us who are really clinging to race are people like me, who are baby boomers.

ROBERTS: Well, but it's an interesting - it cuts both ways, right? Because...


ROBERTS: ...while millennials may not consider someone's race in quite the same way that people who lived through the civil rights movement do, they also don't remember the struggle. They were born long after Martin Luther King was assassinated. So, if you have the sort of advantage of a post-civil right world - post-civil rights movement world view, you also have disadvantages of that.

Mr. EUBANKS: Yes. There are disadvantages of that, because you don't have all of the history. And that's one of our - one of the great problems and paradoxes of American society is that we have a very thwarted sense of our own history. We - our historical memory is very short. And that's why I think today it is so important to look at kind of the broad swath of our historical memory. And listening to the "I Have a Dream" speech before I came on the air really had a profound impact on me in thinking about this idea of a post-racial society.

I think there was one line in the "I Have a Dream" speech where he's talking about how white people's future was tied in black people's future, and then you think about where we are today. And that - how - that was - you just think about that now, that is prophetic what King said, gosh, you know, almost 50 years ago.

ROBERTS: Let me bring Mark Anthony Neal into this conversation. He's a professor of black popular culture at Duke University, and joins us on the phone from his home in Durham, North Carolina. It's good to have you with us.

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Black Popular Culture, Duke University): Thanks, thanks.

ROBERTS: Do you have a definition of the term post-racial?

Prof. NEAL: You know, I wouldn't disagree with what Ralph has presented in that regard, though I think for many Americans, you know, for rank-and-file folks, what they were hoping, out of this notion of a post-racial society, on the hand is the idea of a post-racist society that, you know, these kind of blatant slights that have kind of defined the experience that some people in this country for a long time, that we be pushing towards a moment where those kinds of slights don't exist. When I think about the usage of the term, the employment of the term post-racial, you know, I think it really means something else.

I think we saw in the support for Barack Obama and, you know, not discounting his policies and what he represented to some folks versus Senator McCain, but I think there were a large segment of this country that was hopeful that with the election of Barack Obama, that conversations with race would disappear.

I think we're a country that, even as we really have not had the kind of conversations around race that we need to have, we are fatigued by the issue of race, and Barack Obama seemed the best way for us to get past having to deal with race on a daily basis - this idea that once we elected, you know, an African-American president, a president of African descent, you know, then we no longer would have to talk about the kind of impediments that exist in this society because of race.

ROBERTS: Have you seen the conversation about race in this country change since his inauguration?

Prof. NEAL: You know, I think, in fact, I would say the conversation has gone backwards. You know, I think Ralph is dead-on. We have - our sense of historical memory is sorely lacking. You know, in some ways, even this recent conversation with the Senate leader and his use of the term Negro dialect and the responses to that question, you know, struck me odd, on the one hand, because it's the same thing that the current vice president essentially said two years ago when he described, you know, then-Senator Barack Obama as being well-spoken. And it's also a critique that has occurred within the context of black communities for a long time in terms of the realities of colorism, the idea that there's a color caste system that has existed within black communities.

But again, these kind of, you know, basic, everyday race conversations get treated, you know, as - become sensationalized within the context of these conversations. You know, I've often joked with folks, publicly, you know, and also in some of my writing, that you know, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States by essentially running as the most perfect Negro ever, you know, for lack of a better way to...

ROBERTS: What does that mean?

Prof. NEAL: I mean, literally he had to be perfect in his performance of his blackness and in the one way that he performed blackness that was appealing to a large majority of African-Americans but also was not deemed dangerous, you know, to a large number of whites and other folks who weren't African-American. And within the context of that performance, I mean, he really had to pivot, you know, in a way that made - that his performance had to be perfect.

And if the criteria for the first black president, you know, is this level of perfection, you know, I don't think we'll achieve a post-racial society. I don't think we achieve a post-racial society until we elect, you know, a black man, a Latino man, an Asian man, a black - Latino - white woman, you know, who is nominally mediocre as some of the men who have been president and have been in this country. And if we get to that point, you know, where we can accept mediocrity in our diversity, I think we've reached a post-racial-society moment.

ROBERTS: Ralph Eubanks?

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I find it really interesting thinking about him being perfect, and I know the expression, the perfect Negro, but I think we often, in talking about President Obama, really forget how he bridges two cultures - that he is biracial or multi-racial. So he has grown up in both of these worlds. He straddles both of these worlds, and that also - I mean, I was - when I was working on "The House at the End of the Road," and I was in Alabama, I remember someone saying to me: I'm going to vote for Barack Obama, but I'm going to be voting for the white half, not the black half.

ROBERTS: We are talking about a post-racial America. Do you think we are closer than we have been? How do you define the term? We'll take more of your calls in a moment, 800-989-8255. Or send us email, talk@npr.org. Ralph Eubanks is with us, author of "The House At The End Of The Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South"; and Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Later in the show, we'll get an update on the situation in Haiti and talk with a member of the U.S. Special Operations Rescue Team on the ground there. Stay with us for that conversation.

Right now, how do you define the term post-racial? It's nearly a year since President Obama's inauguration. Are we any closer to becoming a post-racial country? The number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University; and Ralph Eubanks, author of "The House At The End Of The Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South."

Let's take some of your calls. This is Ian(ph) from Kansas City, Missouri. Ian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

IAN (Caller): Wow, thank you guys very much for taking my call.


IAN: I have a question regarding the conversation that white and black folks are supposed to be having, and: A, I've never seen anybody having a actual conversation. I've seen people talking. You know, we need to have a conversation. The conversation's done this. A, I've never seen a conversation. What is the conversations supposed to be about? Are we supposed to talk about hey, what do you hate about black people? Hey, what do you hate about white people? Are we supposed to have that? Where is this conversation supposed to take place? Because I'm thinking, like, a C-SPAN or some kind of news thing where white folk and black folk can sit back and talk. And I want to see this conversation actually happen. I was wondering if you guys could answer that without using generalities or blanket statements. What is the conversation we're supposed to have? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Ian.

Mr. EUBANKS: I think the conversation begins in our own families. I received a call from someone who had just read my book - actually read my first book and was really kind of aghast at kind of some of the experiences of racism that I experienced growing up in Mississippi and said, well, you know, what can I do to change this? I said, well, talk about this with your family. He said, well, we never talk about race in our family because we're not racist.

I said that doesn't matter. It's - having the conversation. When events happen, talk about them. Figure out exactly how do you feel about it, how would you think about it, and read and try to get some type of both historical and social context for what the event was. I think that's what we - what happened with Speaker Harry Reid is that no one really looked very closely at what he was saying, and, I think, also - a guest on your show recently talked about this, that perhaps he did not have any close friendships with African-Americans to realize that was not a term that he should be using right now.

ROBERTS: Yeah, that was an opinion from Keli Goff, who joined us last Monday. Mark Anthony Neal, what would you add to the conversation?

Prof. NEAL: You know, I'd like to say very quickly about Harry Reid, you know, I'm sure, you know, Harry Reid, you know, was in grade school and high school at some point and opened his textbook, and his textbook described the way black folks talk as Negro dialect.

Immediately when he said that, that's what struck me, that, you know, he wasn't necessarily calling Barack Obama a Negro, but his understanding of whatever the technical term is that - the way African-Americans speak, black vernacular English, et cetera, et cetera, you know, was described to him when he was younger as Negro dialect.

But in the context of this discussion, I mean, I'm fortunate in the context of being in the classroom, you know, in a multiracial environment, teaching African-American studies. You know, so I get to partake in this discussion fairly regularly, you know, amongst African-American students, Latino students, obviously white American students. So I'm privileged in that regard to have the conversation.

But I think we do have this conversation on a fairly regular basis in different places and spaces around the country. When you talk to the generation of white 30-somethings that really signed on board to Barack Obama's campaign fairly early and tell them, you know - and ask them, you know, what was their kind of introduction to, for instance, race in America, and many of them will tell you that, you know, for them, listening, for instance, black hip-hop artists coming from Compton and the Bronx and other places afforded them an opportunity to eavesdrop on a certain conversation about race in America. And for them it was just that - it was a conversation.

You know, they felt they had a space to speak back to that if it was amongst themselves but also amongst their white peers, you know, amongst their black and brown peers.

So I think we've had that conversation. I think very often that conversation gets stunted because what we get in terms of corporate media, around this conversation, is something very different that never really gets to depth in terms of what kind of concerns that folks have across the racial spectrum, you know, things that concern them, things that don't concern them, you know, common ground.

We very rarely have that kind of rich conversation that we see take place in mainstream corporate media. There were moments during Barack Obama's campaign, you know, for instance after his great race speech, where we had those kind of moments, but for the most part, you know, it's a very superficial language.

ROBERTS: We are trying to have that conversation with you all and with our callers here on TALK OF THE NATION this hour. 800-989-8255 is the number to call. Let's hear from Hasan(ph) in Charlotte. Hasan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

HASAN (Caller): Thank you very much for taking my call.


HASAN: I just want to make two quick comments. I think we will know that we are moving in the right direction towards a post-racial society when you have just as many individuals trying to seek a post-secondary education at a historically black college or university as you do as a majority institution.

And second, I think that since Barack's election, I think that from what we can call conservative, or mainstream, or whatever type of right-wing media that you like to describe it as, I think we've seen more of the almost overt, sometimes, but very direct racist or subliminally racist comments and attitude towards people of color in this country in general - whether it's immigration, or Haiti or whatever the case may be.

It just seems that there's a very sometimes direct, sometimes not-so-direct, subliminal message about how people feel about people of color in this country. And I'll take my comments off the air, thanks.

ROBERTS: Hasan, thanks for your call. I'm glad he brought up Haiti because, you know, having that conversation because it is, of course, a breaking news story, and we're continuing to get lots of information from Haiti, but it is in the context of Martin Luther King Day, and certainly some of the conversation about what happens with Haitian refugees and how much aid should be sent there has a racial undertone. You know, Haitians are brown people.

Unidentified Man: It does have a racial overtone, and I think there are also immigration issues that will be with Haitian refugees. That also adds fuel to the immigration debate that is going on that has been, I think, part of what you've seen with some of the tea party protestors, as well.

So I think that by - we can't really ignore that racial component, and I think that there is very often in this - you know, most of us who write, you know, kind of in the media establishment, we are both confounded by race, we are quick to cast things in racial terms. But at the same time, we are also doing things in such a way that it makes it difficult to have a candid conversation about something that may have a racial undertone, very much like what's the debate that could happen with Haitian refugees.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Melody(ph) in Syracuse. Melody, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MELODY (Caller): Thank you. I see a post-racial America as beginning, but as one of the gentleman speakers said, I feel it's the younger generation where race doesn't make a difference.

I'm a teacher. I have an African-American daughter, and to me, the next generation is going to carry it forward. I also think there's an economic component because even when you get beyond race, you then have the idea of economic justice, and that will be the next big step.

ROBERTS: Melody, thanks for your call. Yeah, Mark Anthony Neal, I'm sure you, you know, being in touch with college students every day, would find that there are different generational attitudes, as well.

Prof. NEAL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, race matters to this generation. It just doesn't matter the way it does to my generation or my parents' generation. I think they just simply read race differently.

So on the one hand, you know, there are attitudes of difference that are clearly articulated in their experiences, right? And of course, you know, race doesn't exist in isolation, right? Race lives alongside, you know, social and class divisions and a range of other things.

So on the one hand, you know, they may respond to traditional imagery that we think of as racist. To use a good example, the LeBron James cover, a few years ago, on American Vogue, where he's with the white model, and most folks of my generation saw that and immediately saw...

ROBERTS: King Kong.

Prof. NEAL: Fay Wray, you know, the King Kong imagery, and for them, they don't read that imagery the same way. I mean, there's lots of reasons, including the fact that, you know, they're bombarded with images in ways that fundamentally we can't even process, you know, so much information. You know, so information doesn't stick with them the same way.

So they may not be as sensitive to certain kinds of symbols of racism or stereotypes, et cetera, et cetera, but that doesn't mean that they don't read difference.

When I talk to some of my black students at Duke University, they are clearly cognizant of what it means to be a black student at Duke University, right? That doesn't disappear. On the same note, I think it's important that when we talk about this post-race moment - and this is really where I've fallen in terms of what I feel was important about this conversation about a post-racial society.

You know, I don't want to live in a society where we don't recognize race and ethnicity, right? Our value to the world has to deal with our relationship to communities and our individuality, and some of that speaks to heritage. And that heritage is most prominent when we talk about ethnicity and our race. Do we get to the point where we recognize that difference and value that difference and value that diversity? And I don't think we're clearly at that point yet.

ROBERTS: Well, yeah. It's the difference between being equal and being the same.

Mr. EUBANKS: I think that is, very much. And I think the caller also makes a very good point about economics, too, because so often when we're talking about this idea of a post-racial society, we're - and we're thinking very often in terms of African-American progress, but we're thinking of the progress of middle-class African-Americans, and that's often a stand-in for the progress of African-Americans in general.

Prof. NEAL: Right.

Mr. EUBANKS: And I think that's something that rarely comes into the conversation about what we're saying our post-racial moment is. And I think that Professor Neal was also talking about something that I believe is where we're going, as I said at the beginning of the program, is a multiracial society, where these differences are - they're valued a lot more than perhaps they are now.

I think there's a sense - as I said, there was two definitions of a post-racial society, one being completely color blind, where there are no differences. We are all Americans. That's - we really can't get there, but at least recognizing those differences. And what, you know, as I said before, will save us, maybe demographics, because that the big shift that's coming about right now.

ROBERTS: Well, also, I mean, in addition to the generational questions of being, you know, one or two generations removed from the civil rights movement, there's the increasing mixing and multiracial kids, in addition to a multiracial society. I mean, we do have a mixed-race president. You know, more kids are likely to be from more than one community going forward. You've written a lot about this, Ralph Eubanks. What role does (unintelligible) play there? Yeah.

Mr. EUBANKS: My own children are part of that demographic, as well. I mean, they're - I think in the 2000 census, 2.4 percent of people who filled out the census form checked more than one box. And I think the demographers think that that is going to climb over the years to about 20 percent. So that's one change. And, you know, we have both - I think it's New Mexico, Texas and California, where minority groups are now the majority.

So, I think this non-Hispanic white population in several states is, you know, getting close to 60 percent. So these demographic changes are also going to have a big impact on how our society handles race and - because we're going -we're not going to be able to walk away from it, because it's going to be right there. We're not going to be able to run away from it. And there won't be any suburbs to run to where there won't be people of another race.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's take a call from Pam in Alabama. Pam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PAM (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hi. Welcome to the show.

PAM: Thank you. My daddy was a white policeman during the demonstrations in Alabama when I was a child. And I was so hurt by what he did to the people then, and it affected the way I look at him as my daddy. And some plans and things have come as far as they've come. I think they will continue to improve. I am a nurse, and I work with black people. And over the years, we've established trust in each other.

And the conversation with us is often funny when we talk about the differences in our cultures, how we've had to talk about the different ways the black people do funerals, as opposed to the way white people do funerals. And we have established the type of relationship with each other that we are not defensive or offensive and thinking about race.

And I think that it just takes practice and it takes people sitting down and listening to what the other side has got to say without trying to find criticism or fault in it. And I'm very ashamed and embarrassed right now by the comments that Rush Limbaugh made. I think that is so detrimental to any hope for improvement. Thank you for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Pam, thank you so much for calling in. That is a reminder of how far we've come.

Mr. EUBANKS: It is a reminder of how far we've come. But I think she also makes a very good point. Those social connections are so important that people make to foster that conversation. I think also Professor Neal talked about something that is really significant and that is hip-hop, which bridges so much of these cultures among the young.

I'm not of the hip-hop generation. I'm far from that, but I see that very much with my own children. I went to my first hip-hop show about a year ago, and I -and it - I was really taken by it and saw how everyone - it was, as George Clinton said, one nation under a groove, and it was incredible.

ROBERTS: Mark Anthony Neal?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. NEAL: Yeah, I agree with much of that. You know, it's heartening when you see folks who can speak publicly about how they have significantly seen the kind of changes, particularly in the South. You know, with the Joe Wilson debacle over the summer and hearing Jimmy Carty(ph) - Jimmy Carter, excuse me -you know, speak to what he heard and how you really had to place a lot of value in that, you know, given where he had come from as, you know, as a Dixiecrat decades ago and being sensitized by various issues and then coming to public prominence, you know, in terms of his campaign and the kind of Cabinet that Jimmy Carter had, which was groundbreaking at the time in terms of its racial diversity.

You know, so to hear him talk about what he heard in Joe Wilson's comments, you know, was both brave, but it's also very important because it spoke to how far we had come in terms of racial discourse in this country, you know, in a positive way.

ROBERTS: That's Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He joined us from his home there. And Ralph Eubanks, who joined us here in Studio 3A, is the author of "The House at the End of the Road." He's currently working on a book about the term post-racial. Thank you both so much for being here.

Mr. EUBANKS: Thank you for having me here.

ROBERTS: Coming up, we'll get a first-hand account of the rescue operations in Haiti. A member of the U.S. military special operations team joins us from Port-au-Prince. Plus, how you can help.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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