President Obama said yesterday that “we are not cured of [racism].” He also said that “the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives. . .casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”
Let’s consider these assertions.
The second consists of cliched metaphors (“casts a long shadow” and “part of our DNA”). As such, they are difficult to evaluate.
It’s fair to say, I think, that institutions as pernicious as slavery and Jim Crow are bound to “cast a long shadow.” But that’s not the same thing as saying that anything remotely resembling the racism that animated them persists today.
Obama seemed to make this claim when he asserts that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is “still part of our DNA that’s passed on.” But he contradicted his own metaphor when he acknowledged the great progress America has made in its race relations:
Do not say that nothing has changed when it comes to race in America, unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s or 60s or 70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours and that opportunities have opened up and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact.
We have made this progress in large part because the racism of one generation of Americans frequently was not passed down to the next generation. This is not a question of “DNA.”
Obama is correct, though, in saying that America is “not cured” of racism. Racism, both white and black, is among the many social ills that have not been “cured.” Others include sexism, drunkenness, drug abuse, illiteracy, sloth, envy, and gluttony.
Each can be reduced, but none will ever be “cured.”
In the case of white racism, we have outlawed its most serious manifestations, including a wide array of discriminatory practices. And we have stigmatized many others including, as Obama noted, use of the N-word.
Obama said that reluctance to use that word is “not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.” True. But it’s one of many indications — the prevalence of affirmative action is another — that, as Obama admitted, “race relations have improved dramatically” and “attitudes have changed.”
Obama didn’t set forth his view as to the “proper measure” of the extent to which racism still exists. I doubt that there is any reliable measure. We probably can do no better than to assess the direction in which things are moving. As noted, Obama perceives racism to have sharply declined. If nothing else (and there is much else) his election and re-election confirm this assessment.
Perhaps the most important question regarding residual racism in America is whether it is the main reason why blacks continue to lag so far behind whites in economic terms, or whether the main reason is differences in behavior.
This is where the real political divide resides. Conservatives generally attribute the disparity to behavioral considerations — teenage pregnancies, one-parent child rearing, high crime rates, high rates of drug use, etc. To the extent that they see racial prejudice playing a role, it is the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” as George W. Bush used to say.
Liberals, I think, see raw racism and discrimination as the main barriers to black success. And some probably deem the contrary view of the matter that I just described to be, itself, racist.
It would be interesting, and possibly illuminating, if President Obama, instead of tossing around metaphors and cliches, made a good faith effort to discuss this question.