Welcome to Pre-Post-Racial America

Who really thought we had moved past race?

The President of the United States does not typically publicly berate a local police department during a nationally-televised press conference. But at the end of his health care speech on July 22, Barack Obama went there.

The facts are muddy, and both actors must shoulder some of the blame. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates should not have yelled at the police (if he did yell) or insulted them (if he did insult them). But Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department went too far when he arrested an upstanding, elderly citizen for essentially being a nuisance.

Did a highly-educated man actually say “Ya, I’ll talk to your mama outside,” as Crowley claims? We will never know whose story is the real one. The facts of the matter probably lie somewhere in the middle. A fact of life though, is that you cannot mouth off at the police and expect deference and cordiality in return.

After President Obama stepped in and said that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly,” the arrest has become bigger than one man’s injustice. Instead, we have reached the referendum about race that as a candidate Obama tried skillfully to sidestep. Some called him a post-racial president for a post-racial America. We have since snapped back to reality.

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, race plays a role in events. Sometimes subtle, sometimes palpable, it is a present and powerful force. When a black Cambridge resident was shot dead at Harvard, the school refused to graduate a student only tangentially connected to the murder. She was black. Is that what race, power, and class mean at an elite university in America?

A Philadelphia swim club excluded a summer camp contingent full of black children, fearing they would “change the complexion” of the pool. One camper overheard a woman worrying that all the “black kids” might “do something” to her child. Is that it means to grow up dark in America?

And the nomination of “wise Latina” Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has thrust the issues of affirmative action and workplace diversity back into the public spotlight. Sotomayor has been called a racist. What does it mean that one of her questioners on the Senate Judiciary Committee once called the NAACP “un-American,” and later said that he “meant no harm” by the remark?

As a member of a “model minority” (I’m Chinese-American), I am buffered from the worst injustices of prejudice and stereotypes. But I know we live in a world that is far from color-blind. When Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Cabinet member and one of the most publicly visible Asian-Americans, went onto the Daily Show, he gave Jon Stewart a “Nerds of America Society” t-shirt. He played up the Asian nerd stereotype. I cringe at it.

Sotomayor said she felt dislocated when she left the Bronx for Princeton University. I can understand. I went there too, and though I grew up only five minutes away, I still get shocked by how the enclave persists in its whiteness and its WASPiness. Half the time, the only non-white faces at the bar are classmates from high school. Like Cambridge and most of America, Princeton is a bubble, with reinforcing norms and self-enforcing expectations.

Residents of these bubbles often have skewed self-perceptions — I’ve witnessed it firsthand. As the only Asian representative at a small Cambridge town meeting, I was outnumbered by black representatives by nearly double digits, though the latest statistics showing that Asians outnumbered blacks in the city. At another suburban Boston town meeting, my classmates and I looked around in mild disbelief when a resident claimed that his small municipality was the “most diverse place” he’d ever lived in. His city was over 90 percent white and the only minority faces at the table were from MIT.

Henry Gates, a black man who makes PBS documentaries in China, who works for the richest university in the world, lives in a privileged cocoon. That a police officer might have overreacted and arrested a “loud and tumultuous” elderly African-American might have nothing to do with race and everything to do with class and puncturing that golden cocoon.

But this is a country built on slavery, that bears its scars, that has lynching in its blood. The unfair arrest of a black man by a white man in power, regardless of whether it actually had to do with race, will ultimately be interpreted as being racially-motivated.

Gates says he’ll make this a “teaching moment” for America, particularly for blacks. The millions of minorities less fortunate than a Harvard professor have no need for such a lesson. It’s a teaching moment not just for black men, but for us all: a lesson about society and the assumptions we are burdened with.

Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley set off a buzz that engulfed the country. The good produced will be the fact that people will actually start thinking about race and injustice in this country.

When we think in terms of race, we categorize and we polarize. Many just assume, for instance, that Obama is black. We often forget that Barack Obama was born to a white mother. The idea that a half-black, half-white person is always “black” plays into the antiquated and ugly idea of racial purity, harkening back to the days of the “one drop rule.” “Barry” struggled with his biracial heritage. He was born black and white. His identity is rooted in both.

By teaching our children tolerance and celebrating diversity, we try to erase a legacy of discrimination. We try to pass on good because there has been so much bad. But the passive turning over of generations is not enough to overcome the weight of history. Overcoming our soiled past demands foresight and the will to install corrective mechanisms. Judge Sotomayor is a prime example of an “affirmative action baby,” someone who was initially in over her head when arriving at an elite suburban university but who ended up succeeding and graduating summa cum laude. Could she still have ended up where she is today had the upper echelons of American schooling been closed to her?

We must systematically question our assumptions — like the fact that Barack is “black” — so we can root out bias in our public and private institutions, so we can banish prejudice in our city unions, our housing policies, our health care system and judicial branch. For the first time in Obama’s short tenure, the country is actually talking about the issue of race, not just holding up Barack as totemic proof of our diversity and tolerance.

James Baldwin, a black writer so bedeviled by the inequities of America that he fled to Europe, once said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

This is what we must face: Even in a city whose mayor is female, black and lesbian, authority is still tainted by prejudice. Even in a city as liberal as liberal can be, social injustices bubble and seethe underneath.

Even in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gary Shu is a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.