Poet and visionary musician Gil Scott-Heron once said, sarcastically, America leads the world in shock. He was commenting on how the nation routinely acts shocked when embarrassing facts about the us become public and how folks quickly say things like, “I can’t believe that actually happened.”
Brother Scott-Heron was making that point that a lot of things about which America expresses shock have never been secrets to some of us. Perhaps, the election of President Barack Obama lulled some people to sleep regarding attitudes about race in the U.S. A best, while it signaled some important progress with regard to race, it also served to fan the flames of those who were adhering to the new aesthetic of not being blatant races. For those, the election of the first black president proved to be a frightening event. Obama’s election signaled for them the beginning of the end of the good old days of “white privilege.” Once again, racism rushed to the forefront, often disguised to some extent but pointed in intent.
All the while, some of new things really hadn’t changed—just the etiquette behind racist declarations. Some of us have known all along.
The Racial Tensions Lurking Under the Surface of American Society
Even as they quickly condemn the likes of Donald Sterling, surveys reveal whites have serious misgivings about a more diverse nation.
ROBERT P. JONES
Typically, April showers bring May flowers. This year, however, April also delivered a torrent of racially charged issues to the national stage. In Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on university-admissions programs that use race as a criterion in college admissions. Clippers owner Donald Sterling ignited a firestorm when a recording surfaced in which he asked his mixed-race girlfriend not to post photos of herself with black people on Instagram or bring black people to NBA games. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy garnered support from Senator Rand Paul and other prominent conservatives in the wake of his standoff with the federal government over cattle grazing rights.…
The nearly unanimous denunciations of both Sterling and Bundy makes clear that as nation, we have moved beyond the point where blatantly racist statements are publicly acceptable, easily explained away, and carry no real consequences.
…Google’s Ngram viewer allows us to assess the relative usage frequency of the words “prejudice” and “racism” in American English books over time, revealing a confirming pattern. The frequency of the more generic word “prejudice” remains relatively stable from 1900 through 1970, when it begins to decline. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the more normative word “racism” did not appear until 1902, and its usage only begins to pick up in the mid-1960s just as major federal civil-rights legislation is passing. The term “racism” rises through the early 1970s, declines during the Reagan-era 1980s, but then rises sharply again in the 1990s. Most notably, the term “racism,” which relies both on the acknowledgment of racial bias and on a shared normative negative judgment, outpaces the term “prejudice” for the first time in the early 1990s and significantly exceeds it by the mid-1990s.
Well before the election of the first black president in 2008, the condemnation of direct and open expressions of racism had become a social norm. While the fading acceptability of openly racist attitudes is to be celebrated, it clearly does not mean that race no longer matters or that racial tensions and anxieties have disappeared.