A race fantasia

I guess it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Californians believe in magic. After all, this is the land of Hollywood and Disneyland where huge, perpetually smiling rodents sing and dance, cuddly space aliens phone home and pipe-smoking Hobbits really do exist.

One week from today, Californians may take a giant step into another fantasy world where talk of race and racism has been banished to the land of Nevermore. Yes, a fair number of people in America’s largest state believe that the shores of the Promised Land are finally in sight. The time for hallelujah is near. Maybe.

If 1.1 million signatures are collected by this time next week, the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI) will be placed on California’s November ballot. If enacted, the initiative will prevent state agencies from classifying individuals by race, ethnicity, color or national origin for any purpose pertaining to public education, public contracting or public employment. If this measure passes in California, I suspect it’s only a matter of time — and not much time — before it goes nationwide.

In a recent issue of Newsweek, conservative columnist George F. Will argues that RPI will help to create the ideal colorblind society. He thinks that ... well, I’ll just let him say it himself:

“Who can object to the RPI 50 years after Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man, his great novel about black experience in America, wrote, ‘Our task is that of making ourselves individuals’? Who can object to the RPI 48 years after Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney representing the NAACP in Brown vs. Board of Education, said, ‘Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and invidious that a state bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not involve them in any public sphere’? Who can object to the RPI 34 years after Martin Luther King died struggling for a society in which Americans ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’?”

Nicely put. And conservatives such as Will have been making these arguments for some time now. But there’s just one slight problem. All three of the men referred to by Will lived in the real world where racism was an everyday reality. Both King and Marshall were outspoken on the need for corrective legal measures to rectify the years of racism and oppression endured by African-American people. These measures, such as affirmative action and the push to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed” that followed Brown vs. Board of Education could not have been effective had they been rendered “colorblind.” Sure, each of these men hoped for the day when race was no longer a factor, but I think it’s safe to say that not one of them would have ever advocated laying down their arms before the battle had been conclusively won.

I won’t say that Will doesn’t have an appealing argument. It would be great if America had finally reached the level of maturity and decency required to safely jettison all race-related legal measures.

Unfortunately that time has not yet arrived. Just as one example, a recent study shows that African-Americans still receive substandard medical care in hospitals even when they have health insurance. Some whites may find that somewhat surprising, but I’ll bet most black folks weren’t shocked; most black folks are used to dealing with the consequences of inequality and discrimination. We factor it in as a normal, if unwelcome, part of life.

Here’s another example. During the recent Academy Awards ceremony, much was made of the fact that after 74 years of awards, a black man, Denzel Washington, and a black woman, Halle Berry, each won an Oscar on the same night for best actor and best actress in their respective leading roles. A black woman, Whoopi Goldberg, served as master of ceremonies while Sidney Poitier, an African-American and pioneering giant in Hollywood, was recognized with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. It was a great night, but the tearful, incredulous excitement generated by the event was proof enough of how rare — and overdue — such recognition was. After 74 years, two black men have now won an Oscar for best actor and one woman has triumphed as best actress. That’s three black actors. In 74 years. Three.

There are stacks of other statistics, studies and anecdotes demonstrating that the majority of black people still exist in a parallel universe within their own country where health care and housing are routinely substandard, educational opportunities are limited, decent jobs are scarce and the prisons have become a second home for far too many young men. The phrase “permanent underclass” has become synonymous with a significant portion of the African-American population.

Folks like George Will — and I don’t mean just white folks, Ward Connerly is a prime figure in the RPI drive — prefer to deny the conditions that largely created this underclass and perpetuate it. By making it impossible for government to enumerate or consider race, they figure they can erase racism. Race-based problems will disappear. Race-based solutions will be irrelevant. The RPI measure will magically decree all doors of opportunity open to anyone with enough initiative and drive. By perverting the messages of such African-American heroes as King and Marshall they also figure they can justify their position as being in line with what black folks really want for themselves — but just don’t know yet.

When reality doesn’t suit your needs, well, that’s where fantasy steps in to lend a hand. And that also marks the time, in this instance, when the clock begins to tick backward.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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