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Post-Racial Society?

Book looks at how America’s struggle with race continues to haunt us in Age of Obama

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August 11, 2010 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --- President Barack Obama -- son of a Kenyan immigrant father and a white Kansan mother, raised in Indonesia and later in Hawaii by his mother’s parents – represents post-racial America. Yet his wife, Michelle, fears that he is more at risk of being shot at a gas station for the color of his skin than for being president.

President Obama is the most visible representation of the way race functions in America today, according to a new book by a Northwestern University professor titled “Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory and the Black Body” (University of Michigan Press, 2010).

Harvey Young, an associate professor of theatre, performance studies and radio/television/film, hopes his book will shed light on why race matters even in the Age of Obama.

Blacks in the 21st century continue to “share in the experiences of their ancestors who were viewed as ‘other,’ unjustly incarcerated, and subjected to limitless violence,” Young wrote in the book. While black people do not all have the same experiences, he said, the embodied black experience is repeated, albeit with some differences, with remarkable similarity.

The book looks at how many of the prejudices and racial issues that have haunted the U.S. for centuries continue today, from the thousands of lynchings of African-Americans that took place in the late 19th and into the 20th centuries to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black Harvard professor who was mistaken for an intruder and arrested in his own home last year.

High-profile incidents such as those that involved Gates or Rodney King, the black motorist who was severely beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991 after resisting arrest, received national attention. But beyond the media glare, on a daily basis, countless victims of racial epithets and racial profiling also represent the collective black experience, Young said. 

“We need to begin to write about and think about race in the way that it is actually experienced by people on the ground,” he said. As an example, he pointed to the black USDA official Shirley Sherrod who was forced to resign from her job last month after her comments about whether to help a white farmer. Her remarks were taken out of context and broadcast nationally. Shortly thereafter the farmer came to Sherrod’s defense, and the USDA offered her a new position within the agency.

“Even the fact that she was fired, initially, before her comments had been heard demonstrates how sensitive we are to race,” Young said. “Whenever a person talks about race and the complicated way that it’s lived, which she did in her full address, people end up getting up in arms around that.”

The rush to close down conversations about race prevents dialogue from ever occurring, he said. “The rush to fire Sherrod was another example of the desire to close down the discussion.”

The book counters a move within the academy to spend less time talking about the experiences of race and more about subgroups within race.

“There’s this mode of thinking that says just because a person shares the same phenotype that doesn’t give them the same experiences of, for example, class, religion, age and wealth,” Young said. “The thinking is those factors structure one’s day-to-day life.”

Young acknowledged the need to appreciate such differences that separate one person from another. “But we also need to appreciate how issues such as racial profiling target [black] bodies regardless of age, gender, sexuality and class.”