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Steve Nelson: Notably Uneven Progress in Equality Fight

The recent incidents at Dartmouth College should cause any thinking person to reconsider the notion that we live in a post-racial society. One of the unintended but inevitable consequences of Barack Obama’s re-election is the opportunity for the unperceptive to say once again, “See, there is no racism in America! We elected a black president.” Of course, re-electing a black president still leaves open the possibility that 47 percent of the electorate is deeply racist. That is certainly not the case, but there certainly remain too many folks who would never cast a ballot for a black man.

Evidence of intractable racism in America remains abundant. As summarized by anti-racist activist Tim Wise: 90 percent of those incarcerated for drug possession are folks of color; college graduates of color are 30 percent more likely to be unemployed than their white peers; light-skinned immigrants earn roughly 17 percent more than dark-skinned immigrants; a typical white family has 20 times the net worth of a typical black family; black teenagers have a 40 percent unemployment rate. Now, these things could just be coincidental ... . Wise’s recent CNN blog provides links to the evidence for these ugly statistics: http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/31/opinion-tim-wise-what-is-post-racial-reflections-on-denial-and-reality.

The stubborn, arguably deepening problems of race in America may have complex roots, but some factors seem clear. The conservative faction in politics has successfully perpetuated the myth of meritocracy. When one believes “you get what you deserve and deserve what you get” in an opportunity society, they assume that those who fail do so because of inadequate effort, not structural disadvantage. To the meritocrat, the facts cited above are not evidence of institutional or individual racism. They are the result of lackluster commitment, poor parenting, slothful living or weak morals.

This combination of mythical meritocracy and victim-blaming has exacerbated racism in America after decades of stutter step progress.

One of the oddest social realities of this decade is the contrast between race and sexual identity in terms of social progress.

Advances in terms of equal treatment of people with different sexual identities have been breathtaking. Bigotry is not a thing of the past, but the legalization of gay marriage, the end of the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, the inclusion of gay rights in Obama’s recent inaugural address, LGBT programs in schools and communities, and the open acceptance of gay men and women in leadership roles of all kinds are remarkable. It’s arguably true that a shift of this speed and magnitude is unprecedented in American history.

So why is this country sliding back in one area while moving rapidly forward in the other?

My sense is that the “going forward” part of this dichotomy is a function of familiarity and intimacy. Gay rights progress has opened millions of closet doors. I’m struck, for example, at the difference in what happened when Vermont adopted civil unions (Take Back Vermont!) and when it legalized gay marriage (ho hum). Among the changes, those with unexamined homophobia discovered that their lovely neighbors were not just single women sharing a house. Families all over the nation had to come quickly to terms with the coming-out parties of deeply loved sons, brothers or cousins who didn’t seem any less lovable when their sexual identities were revealed. We’ve all seen or read scores of touching stories with this theme. I suspect many Valley News readers have lived these stories. The snowflakes turned into an avalanche, and it quickly became difficult to hate in general while loving so specifically.

But familiarity and intimacy in matters of race are in decline. Yes, we have a biracial president and a great many entertainers and athletes of color, but our cities and towns have become increasingly segregated. In the 1960s and ’70s, formal and informal commitments to integration sparked real progress — uneven and painful, but real progress. Whether through court-ordered busing, fair housing laws or community activism, more and more white and black Americans went to school together, organized block parties in their neighborhoods and learned that much of what they thought they knew about each other just wasn’t true. Now, the wholesale abandonment of racial integration, the resegregation of schools and neighborhoods and the devastating effects of economic apartheid have recreated a climate where black folks are “the other.” It is much easier to demonize folks you don’t really know.

Familiarity and intimacy exploded into the gay rights movement without requiring any action. The gay folks had been right there in our families and neighborhoods all along. But familiarity and intimacy are receding in race relations because not enough of us are living together and going to school together.

Diverse institutions like Dartmouth are places where familiarity and intimacy can slow or reverse the national slide backward in matters of race. That’s what makes the recent incidents so sad and discouraging.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.