Supposedly We Now Live in a “Post-Racial” Society?

I was looking for news clips to show to my Race and Ethnicity class today and I remembered that a friend of mine had told me about some of Karl Rove’s comments during Tuesday’s election results on Fox News. Listening to them today, he does have a few positives to share about what these results mean…that is before he compares the Obama family to the Cosby show by saying “Well look, we’ve had an African American first family for many years in different forms. You know, when the Cosby show was on, it wasn’t a black family, it was an American family.” While that alone is worthy of a blog post, what was also concerning to me was a comment Rove made before that. He was asked, as a “realistic political analyst,” to talk about the degree of color-blindness in our country:

I think particularly among younger people, they are color-blind. Uh, you know, older people, people who grew up and remember the 60s and remember the 50s and the 40s and the 70s, they to varying degrees remain observant of the color of, of the color break in America. But you go on a college campus or you go be around younger people, and they are “post-racial.” You know, and just, the idea of race very rarely enters into their thinking.

While I think many of us will agree that things have changed in some positive ways since the 60s and that this election has been historic in a number of ways, I’m not sure anyone is ready to say that first of all, we live in a society where race isn’t a factor anymore and second that young people don’t think about race anymore. Rove’s comments seem to imply that once older generations pass on, everything will be fine in terms of race, because young people just aren’t thinking about it. In my research talking with Latino undergraduate students, I found instead that for many of them, race continues to be a salient issue on their campuses.

A student at Southern University talked about how some major racial incident seemed to come up on his campus a few times a month when I spoke with him in the Fall of 2006.

This is my 7th semester here. In all my semesters, I’ve never seen like racial tensions like I have right now. (Oh really? What’s going now?)…Like students in the law school had like a ghetto party. They dressed up as stereotypically hip-hop clothing, and they wore like nameplates of stereotypically black and Latino last names. Um, there was a black face incident during Halloween where a couple of students took some pictures and they posted them online on It was a couple of members from a historically white fraternity… Even I mean yesterday the Young Conservatives had an Affirmative Action bake sale…like their own way of protesting the affirmative action policies in this country…I mean…usually like every semester like one or two big things happen, like at the most, but this semester its literally been like one or two big things every month. (“Southern University” Latino Male, 22)

His statement, as well as the comments of others on this campus indicate that race in the thinking of young, white students on college campuses. And it’s not only in their thinking, but it is evident in their racist actions on this campus. Incidents like this one demonstrate that racism is still alive and well on college campuses.

Another student at Southern University talks about an encounter she had with some white students before a football game. Again, we see that the whites racialized the situation in a way that would indicate that they are not free from prejudice:

I just have heard and I got the taste of a kid, of boys came in for the “Southern Tech”- “Southern University” game and uh, we were listening to Shakira, some friends of mine. There was another Hispanic girl in the front seat with me and then a Bosnian girl in the backseat…But we were having so much fun and we needed to sell our tickets and so these guys had their windows open. And we asked “Hey, do you guys want a ticket?… And they said “Oh, we don’t speak Spanish.” And at first I was I like, “What did he mean by that? I wasn’t, did I speak Spanish?” Because I don’t normally speak Spanish. And then I was like “Oh, oh…that still happens? Like, people still are like that?” And so it was just kind of, I was taken aback. And my friend started crying actually. But I was just like, I didn’t realize that still happened nowadays. ( “Southern University” Latina Female 23)

When this woman asked in English if the men in the car next to her needed tickets, they immediately racialized the interaction by informing her that they don’t speak Spanish. The Latina students were shocked and hurt by this reaction. Perhaps initially they thought things were more positive between the races, as Rove seems to think, and then were disappointed and discouraged to find out that, in fact, these incidents still happen.
These incidents were not isolated to just Southern University, so we can’t make the claim that somehow racism only exists in the South. In fact, on each of the campuses (one in the South, one in the Southwest, and one in the Midwest), students faced discrimination when they spoke Spanish on campus. They faced assumptions that the only reason they were attending their university was because of Affirmative Action policies and not because of their own academic talents. One student talked about an experience he had a football game at Southwest University.

I was at a football game last week. . .And somebody said, one of the fraternity guys that were yelling “Immigration bus is here. It’s waiting for you. Get on it.” Even though [At the other players?] Yes, at [the other] players. “Juarez is not here. This isn’t Juarez.” They were calling them all sorts of bad things. . .And they were just being, real, real bad about it. Even though the make-up of [this] football team is hardly any Hispanics. . .And so it was kind of surprising to me that, why would you say such things? (“Southwest University” Latino Male 26)

Notably, Southwest University is almost 35% Latino and still this was the response of white students in the crowd. They heckled the other team by implying that because they were coming from a predominately Latino school. And ironically, whites were racializing a football team that was mostly white!
Even light-skinned Latinos who reveal their racial background faced discrimination:

You see the tone of their voice, how they look at you, what you’re gonna say. After they know that I’m Mexican and stuff, some are like “Oh that’s so cool,”. . .They’re like ‘Wow, you look Italian’ and I’m like ‘I’m 100 percent [Mexican]’. . .So they’re like ‘Wow’, a little bit shocked. They would not talk to me after that. And you feel it, but it’s their problem if they’re not accepting. ( “Midwest University” Latino Male 18 )

This student went on to say that sometimes whites respond that they feel like he lied to them by not revealing this information when they first met him. Somehow, he was under some obligation to reveal his racial background and by not doing so, he was being deceitful. So contrary to what Rove claims, college students are concerned about race in a variety of ways that are both overt and quite subtle. By proclaiming such things, Rove is distorting the reality of the pain that students of color face on a daily basis because of discrimination and mistreatment based on race. As these examples, and many more like them that I could have shared, demonstrate is that racism is not absent from our universities and college campuses or in the mind of white students. Our society has made history this week, but this does not mean we’re living in a “post-racial” utopia.


  1. Will

    I believe that it is safe to say that the only difference between the current college age generation and those that lived through the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s is that we (the college generation) have been taught how to speak about race without sounding racist. At least when directly asked about it

  2. Tanya

    Does anyone see the “uproar” over Obama’s “joke” about Nancy Reagan and séances as the same old “look at the big black man attacking the little (old) white woman”?

    I know some in the media argue it was wrong because she is not well and recovering from a pelvic fracture due to a recent fall.

    I find it highly insensitive to insinuate that Obama was being anything other than a bad comedian. After all, his beloved grandmother just passed away as the result of a similar injury.

  3. Heather

    A few weeks ago at Cal Poly, a bunch of white students in the Agriculture (Crop Science) Department event hung a noose and a poster listing certain people (Blacks, gays, etc. – not in those words) who were “not allowed” at the event. This incident is getting very little media coverage. One of the few items on the web is this letter from the school’s President:

    Looks like some young people still think about race…..!

  4. Joe

    Yes, Will, we recently found that white college students do many blatantly racist performances each week in the US, mostly in the backstage with their friends and relatives. Extrapolating speculatively from our 626 students at 28 colleges, one gets about 24 million racist events per week. Some of these racist performers voted for Obama, because they see him as an “exception” to his race. They will likely continue to do racist N-word type joking and other blatantly racist performances until we have aggressive national antiracism efforts, programs, education systems. For large amounts of evidence on this, See our new book, Two Faced Racism: Whites in the Frontstage and Backstage (Routledge 2007). I challenge anyone to read it and to come out optimistic about the majority of white college students today, even after this election. It was a minority of white students who worked openly for Obama, not the majority.

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