A recent article called, “Voices Reflect Rising Sense of Optimism,” by Susan Saulny in The New York Times, trumpets the usual exuberance over the improvement in “race relations” in the wake the election of President Obama ( photo credit: Bjørn Giesenbauer).
I want to offer a different interpretation of some of the data in the article.
The reporting in this article is based on interviews in seven states throughout the U.S. It is meant to add some personal stories (what newspaper people used to call “color” and what sociologists might refer to as “qualitative data”) to support findings in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll (the quantitative data) in which two-thirds of Americans said race relations were generally good. Rather than a unequivocally optimistic story, as the headline suggests, the qualitative data (e.g., reporting) that the NYTimes presents here offers a glimpse into the micro-level interactions of how everyday racism operates. Let me show you what I mean.
The article starts with a description of what the past 30 years have been like for one working-class black man – a Mr. Sallis, 69 - in Milwaukee, WI, where being black “meant being mostly ignored, living a life invisible and unacknowledged in a larger white world.” Then, Mr. Sallis, 69, noticed a change.
“Since President Obama started campaigning, if I go almost anywhere, it’s: ‘Hi! Hello, how are you, sir?’ I’m talking about strangers. Calling me ‘sir.’ It makes you feel different, like, hey — maybe we are all equals. I’m no different than before. It’s just that other people seem to be realizing these things all around me.” [emphasis added]
Mr. Sallis is being euphemistic here when he says “strangers” – and the NYTimes doesn’t clarify – but he means “white people.” So, the big improvement in “race relations” is that white people have begun to say “Hi! Hellow, how are you sir?” to a black man that they presumably walked past for thirty years previously without acknowledging. I can see how this might qualify as ‘news’ but pardon me if I don’t quite share the optimism here. It seems to me that the broader pattern here is that white people routinely ignore and try to pretend that black people are invisible. So, yes, recognizing black people’s humanity is a big step forward. Mr. Sallis’ story is not an isolated example.
There are other examples of the shift in the micro-level of everyday racism, such as that of Kevin Chaison, a 39-year-old telemarketer in St. Louis, who also says that, as a black man, he used to feel invisible.
“I get more of a sense that I belong now. Now I’m getting more of a, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ than I was a year ago.”[emphasis added]
Again, note that Mr. Chaison is expressing optimism here about the fact that white people have acknowledged his existence with a simple, polite greeting. While it’s certainly good news, it also highlights the fact that until the historic election of the first African American president, white people were in the habit of not speaking to their fellow citizens who happen to be black. Perhaps this is what some white people mean when they insist that they’re colorblind and “don’t see race.”
A third black man quoted in the article, Chester J. Fontenot Jr., 59, a professor of English and director of Africana studies at Mercer University in Macon, GA, says that he has felt a shift on his campus in terms of the micro-level interactions. Here’s Professor Fontenot:
“I think what’s happened with a number of white people who have come up and started talking to me is they feel comfortable with him (President Obama), and that makes it O.K. to come up and engage me. They feel like they have something in common with me now, we have something to talk about. Now you get the head nod, or a smile that you just didn’t get a year or two ago. For me, it was like, ‘I’m not even going to acknowledge this black person.’ They’d just keep on their merry way. But now, I get acknowledged.” [emphasis added]
Once again, the mere fact of being acknowledged is noteworthy because it is such a dramatic shift in the micro-level interactions that make up everyday racism.
While I think there’s room for some optimism, I also think that it’s important to recognize that what seems to have changed is white people’s behavior. And, the changes being reported here are at an incredibly small, micro-level of interaction. This is progress to be sure, but it’s a long way from dismantling the institutionalized discrimination that operates whether or not someone says “Hey, how you doing?”