It is a belief, common among well-meaning Americans, that the first step to ending racism is to recognize its existence. This seems perfectly logical; after all, how can we combat racism if we refuse to acknowledge its existence? Yet decades after the civil rights movement, the legacy of racism permeates seemingly every sector of our society, from urban demographics to popular culture. Are we merely in the midst of a long journey, or is it time to change our itinerary?
Tonight, the Rev. Al Sharpton will be speaking about affirmative action at a Yale Political Union debate, co-sponsored by the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the Yale College Council. There was a time when affirmative action was a policy of actively seeking to admit, appoint and employ qualified people of minority status, particularly blacks. Now it has come to refer to a system of meeting “quotas of diversity.” The former is an important step toward the elimination of barriers to racial equality and progress. The latter is not only an insult to minorities but also a means of emphasizing racial differences. In fact, the policy gives cause to anyone who chooses to resent the achievements of successful blacks.
By advocating a color-conscious society, Sharpton lends partial justification to policies of racial segregation. Slavery, Jim Crow laws and racial profiling all depend upon a society that recognizes racial differences. Maintain color consciousness and you encourage socioeconomic inertia, but render society colorblind and you render racism defunct.
When it is suggested that racial equality finally exists in America, many retort that racism against blacks endures in silent, dangerous ways. But this argument fails to account for the wave of successful first-generation Americans — black Americans — who have willingly come from Africa and the Caribbean to take advantage of the economic and educational opportunities here. These individuals and families arrive with the dreams and the work ethic of an immigrant culture that has kept America thriving since its founding. This begs the question: How can we continue to talk about the racial discrimination facing black Americans when a new generation of successful black Americans is consistently finding success in the classroom?
Perhaps racism, as a concept, is already defunct, and culture is the new foe. Consider the comments of Juan Williams, author of “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America — and What We Can Do About It,” and comedian Bill Cosby, whose name has become a curse among certain black leaders because of a controversial speech at the NAACP. Rather than stubbornly continuing to seek instances of racism, perhaps it is time to take a more conservative approach: re-examine the moral fiber of culture and renew the importance of the family. Ironically, then, the first step to ending racism is to stop focusing on race and instead to make society truly colorblind.
In some ways, the American theater has already eliminated color consciousness. A century ago, the title character of Othello would have been played by a white actor wearing heavy makeup. Today, a black actor can play a Danish prince with white parents and nobody will think anything of it. Those especially naturalistic (read: uninformed) might find this strange, but this colorblind policy eliminates racial tension on and off the stage. Suspension of disbelief allows us to think beyond the confines that we construct for ourselves in the real world.
Yet even here at Yale, a bastion of progressive thought and experimental theater, racial consciousness lingers. In my freshman-year naivete, I proposed a production of a Shakespeare play that would transfer the setting from ancient Greece to the antebellum South and, predictably, would cast black actors as slaves. After struggling to find a crew, I sought the help of one of the ethnic theater companies on campus. To my delight, I was immediately contacted by a representative, and I set to work planning design concepts and applying for funding. It was only during our second meeting that the representative admitted that the officers were, first and foremost, bewildered that a white director would propose such a show and, second, concerned that the production would contain racist overtones. The show never went up for many reasons, but in light of its celebration of black heritage, I was disappointed at the proposal’s reception.
Needless to say, this is a touchy subject, but therein lies the problem. If we want to put the legacy of racism behind us, we must permit unhindered discussion of the issues without allowing a color consciousness to become institutionalized. It’s a choice between recognizing racism and ending racism, and it’s time we understood the difference.
Alexander Dominitz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. This is his first regular column.