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Post-racial rhetoric won’t work

Alex Coccia | Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Racialized rhetoric has been at the forefront of public conversation both nationally and at Notre Dame. It surrounded events such as the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the Town Hall meeting last spring to discuss instances of racial harassment on campus. All of these occurrences have raised a series of questions: Is race still an issue? Do we create racial tension by bringing it up in conversation? Have we reached a post-racial society?
A recent Letter to the Editor in The Observer (“Segregation at the tabernacle,” Sept. 3) made the case that we live in a post-racial society and that bringing up race only furthers any divisions: “By focusing incoming freshmen on their race, we are not ‘unifying’ them with the rest of campus. Until Notre Dame stops classifying its students by race or orientation, the campus will have problems. We, as Notre Dame, are not made up of ‘white students,’ ‘black students,’ ‘gay students,’ etc. No. We are Notre Dame.” The intention behind this statement – a vision of a post-racial Notre Dame – is one of unity. This argument represents an individual assimilation model, which suggests that racial identities would not play any significant role in the incorporation, whether socio-economic, political, etc., of people into broader communities. The model suggests that racial divides would be diminished if proponents of policies, such as multiculturalism, that emphasize race would stop their advocations. It suggests that prejudices and their concrete consequences can passively dissolve over time, and that ultimately, everyone, regardless of race, assimilates to the community, whether to American society or to Notre Dame’s.    
However, there are problems in adhering to an individual assimilation perspective and in arguing that post-racial rhetoric is needed to bridge the racial divide. The following criticisms acknowledge that race is a social construct. However, they also recognize that it has pervaded societies and manufactured realities that bolster structural inequality. The “perception” of race has created consequences that are all too real and very recognizable. Post-racial ideology assumes that these consequences are eliminated psychologically by requiring the oppressed to forget the past wrongs that have been done to them. This assumes it is even a possibility, and practically requires the oppressed to accept the institutional inequality is in fact a “new normal.” Notice, however, how both of these options place all responsibility on the non-dominant paradigmatic group.
This leads to the first criticism: An individual assimilation model subtly assumes there is a point of equilibrium to which people assimilate. However, the dominant paradigm, in the Notre Dame context, is white, upper-middle class, straight male. This first assumption is in the phrase, “we are not ‘unifying’ them with the rest of campus,” as if the “rest of campus” is a de-racialized one, and all who choose to step outside it, even registered students, are no longer part of “Notre Dame.”
The second criticism is that an individual assimilation model assumes a level of equality in historical experiences that influence opportunity in society. Whatever inequality and oppression that currently do exist are the results of perceived psychological oppression rather than actual physical oppression, and are, therefore, the fault of the oppressed. There is no physically descriptive, normative value to “American society” or “Notre Dame;” however, by arguing that we live in a post-racial society, we fail to appreciate the historical injustices towards different groups, and we add insult to injury the moment we ascertain that those experiences should be set aside in order for assimilation into the dominant paradigm.        
The third criticism is that an individual assimilation model assumes that silence, or the idea of “the best way to end racism is to stop talking about race,” is the best means to overcome such inequality. Silence never works to eliminate oppression, whether physical, psychological or structural, because silence reinforces a status quo that is inherently unequal.
If the intention of “unification,” for which I believe we should all strive, is to be reached, post-racial rhetoric will not work. What is needed is a pluralist model, which does not place the burden of responsibility to actively create a unified community solely on the shoulders of the historically marginalized and regularly silenced. This model needs to address the causes of structural inequality of opportunity rather than to silence all efforts. This model is not one where racial differences do not matter, but where racial differences are not subjugated to one another. Such a model encourages conversation and coalition building, and states that racial distinctions, as components of self-identity, actually provide a participatory outlet for incorporation in a broader society. If we want unity, in American society or at Notre Dame, the process by which we achieve it must not be community-critical, but community-based.

Alex Coccia is a junior Africana and Peace Studies major, and a Gender Studies minor. He appreciates classroom conversations in Black Politics in Multiracial America.  He can be reached at acoccia@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.