It is easy (tantalizingly so) to rail against racism, pointing out only the negative aspects. After all, it doesn’t take a great deal of creativity or courage on my part to say ‘racism is bad’ and for readers to say ‘I agree’. I doubt I will ruffle any feathers making such proclamations, although I know there are definitely some of you that weren’t completely with me at first and have since come around to my way of thinking. This is encouraging, as it means that there is some collision of persuasion and open-mindedness happening on these pages. It takes only a few such interactions to make major change.
And it may… just may be that we are seeing some of that change happening before our eyes:
In 1994, Ellis Cose surveyed successful, middle-class African-Americans and uncovered an often unspoken rage. He described his findings in the book The Rage Of A Privileged Class. Now, 17 years later, Cose has discovered a major change among middle-class blacks: They have become one of the most optimistic groups in America. He reveals his findings in a new book, The End Of Anger.
This is encouraging news indeed, for a few reasons. First, it suggests that at least some progress has been achieved toward a harmonization of the middle class, despite racial differences. Second, it shows a decline in the narrative of ‘us vs. them’ that often seems to pervade the discussions of black/white racism. Third, it flies in the face of those who would claim that black people prefer to play victim rather than work to advance. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it may be possible to learn what things have worked and what haven’t and to use those lessons to inform future social progress.
To the first point, it is important to be cautious. This study does not say that black people no longer feel like racism is a problem:
Cose tells NPR’s Neal Conan that the rise in optimism is not linked to perceived end of discrimination. “No one black who I talked to thinks we have arrived at a point where we are an equal opportunity nation,” Cose says.
What it does say is that the perception of opportunity is greater, and this has begun to pervade the general consciousness. Spurred perhaps by the existence of prominent models of colour in high-ranking positions (other than the sport or other entertainment industry), black kids have grown up with a substantially different understanding of the possibilities of achievement than their parents did. At the risk of reading way more into this than the evidence warrants, this exact effect is one of the goals of affirmative action policies: increase the number of high-profile professionals that are people of colour (PoCs) so as to provide role models for others. Whether or not that is the reason for this shift is debatable, but it certainly nods in that direction.
Second, this study seems to corroborate what we saw last week: namely, that the entrenched conflict between black and white seems to be diminishing (at least in the eyes of black people). Instead of general frustration at the barriers in place to advancement, young black professionals are reporting belief that with hard work, they can advance. Again, these are perceptions, not observed data, so we must be cautious when interpreting what this actually means. This culture of advancement works to benefit both sides: black professionals can begin to assert themselves and change the narrative about what it means to have dark skin, while white professionals will begin to see that having intelligent and hard-working black colleagues is not a zero-sum game, but rather a boon to their business and productivity.
Critics of anti-racism often charge them (us) with coddling PoCs, and promoting a culture of victimhood. Black people wouldn’t be where they are, these critics say, if the liberals didn’t spoon-feed them and convince them that all their problems were someone else’s (whitey’s) fault. Of course, as is the way with this brand of criticism, it comes without evidence. When the attitudes are measured, we see that as we work to improve society’s permeability for PoCs by legislating against some forms of discrimination, PoCs are ready not only to take advantage of the opportunity but to adjust their expectations. Black people (at least those in this study) are happy to take control when opportunities are presented and barriers are taken down.
This is good and useful information, and this phenomenon must be explored more thoroughly. Considering the increasing visibility of the Latin and Arab communities in the United States, South and East Asians in Canada, and the looming spectre of systemic race problems in Europe, it is vital to have an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. While different minority groups have their own unique issues, we can learn what narratives are conducive to progress and which ones simply allow the status quo of single-group supremacy to maintain indefinitely.
Many of these issues are generational, meaning that children born in this era will likely not see the same kinds of racism that, for example, I saw while I was growing up. They will have a profoundly different understanding of what race means, and they will have to grapple with brand new issues that we can’t even conceive of now. However, it is good to see that their parents will be bringing them up in a world that gives them a positive attitude about what they can achieve with hard work. Some of that may be illusory, some of it may be true only thanks to policies enacted in their parents’ lifetimes, and some may indeed have always been true.
So while we are far from a true version of a ‘post-racial’ utopia, we may be seeing some of the initial signs that point the way to a more productive and equitable conversation about race.
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