On March 18, 2008, Barack Obama gave the most important speech of his political career. ABC News had found clips of the then-senator’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright delivering tirades against the American government, including a clip, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, in which Wright echoed Malcolm X: “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” When Obama’s denunciation of Wright’s sermons was not enough to sate his critics, he delivered a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Obama tried to explain the greater social and cultural context of Wright’s frustration with the institutions that had failed him.
“The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect,” Obama said, nearly eight years ago. His words are no less relevant today.
In the past few weeks, many earnest, socially conscious white people have expressed dismay at the recent unrest at Yale. Some have cast it as a conflict between political correctness and free speech. Others see it as evidence of coddled college students and knee-jerk liberal sympathy for minorities. Woven through these columns and conversations is the same doubt: “It’s Yale. How bad can it be? Is the melodrama necessary?” These questions miss the bigger picture.
The twilight of the Obama administration has presided over a series of setbacks to racial equality. Many American institutions aren’t as equitable as we might hope. Between the Supreme Court’s excoriation of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the consequent slew of statewide voter ID laws, the astronomical rates of black male incarceration and widely covered shootings of young, unarmed black men, we are far from the “post-racial” society many spoke of after Obama’s election. The furor that erupted at Yale and other universities across the nation should be understood in the greater context of American racial politics. “Peaks in racial progress tend to come in concert with valleys of backlash,” wrote Jelani Cobb in 2013, covering the VRA decision for the New Yorker.
Yale students do not face the worst racism in America, but the existence of racism in America’s most privileged institutions is nonetheless pernicious, if at times inadvertent. Racism can exist anywhere in America. Microaggressions — which became parody fodder for certain members of the media — may seem trivial in the grand scheme of American racial politics. But the attitude that some prejudice is too small and too complicated to address is lazy for a school that commits itself to excellence, and a union that commits itself to equality.
In his response to the 2013 VRA decision, Jelani Cobb wrote, “We’ve entered a new terrain … where we must muster evidence of bias in increasingly vast volumes to warrant policies applied in ever narrowing circumstances; where nothing qualifies as what we once called racism, and commitment to this perspective is all but data-proof.” This is both a challenge and a privilege. Flagrant racism — the racism of “Whites Only” signs and angry segregationist mobs — is no longer acceptable in America. But like a pathogen it has mutated. The racism that remains unaddressed in America is quiet and insidious. It has marbled over centuries into the pillars of institutions that represent and serve people of all colors and creeds. It is harder to see, particularly if you’re white, and can spring from myopia or naivete. But its consequences are as denigrating and dangerous as ever.
It is our generation’s responsibility to face this more subtle racism. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We are further along that arc, closer to justice, but countless complexities and challenges remain to work through. We should not settle for a union or a University that is good enough, but one that is as perfect