Equality in the Abstract

Michael Tesler and Divid Sears in their book Obama’s Race connect historical attitudes about race in the United States to the current political and social climate of our country. Tesler and Sears write about current racial attitudes among white people who seem to be supportive of diversity, but fail to maintain such support in real world applications. The authors write,

“As a result, new theories arose to explain the combination of massive white support for racial equality in opportunity and treatment in the abstract, on the one hand, with continued white opposition to government action to produce racial equality on the ground, on the other. Some of these theories proposed a ‘new racism,’ postulating changes both in the content of contemporary racial conservatism and in its presumed determinants.”

In our minds we are all free from discrimination and want all people to be able to succeed based on merit and personal responsibility. What we see, however, when we look at decisions aggregated by communities and larger groups, is a system that favors white people and fails to live up to our ideals of merit. What is worse, white people in our country have developed ways of talking about race and about success that appear to be race neutral, but in reality support the status quo and work to undermine diversity.

White people within our society have not just rejected programs that are clearly meant to favor minorities and help reduce the disparities that arose from overtly racist periods in our country. We have developed structures that favor those who succeeded in the past and received more support while leaving out those who do not. What this means is that we have been more supportive of those who gained from the economic exclusion of black people and we have dismissed the needs and concerns of black people who lacked such advantages. In this sense we have worked to undermine the legitimacy of affirmative action and the defense we offer (that we select meritorious and qualified individuals for new opportunities) is often just a cloaked approach to defending racial superiority or oppression. We have literally created policies that advantage white people at the expense of black people, even if the policies do not say that directly. Every time we do favor such policies, we redirect resources away from black people toward white people, in a form of affirmative action that helps our white population instead of our minority populations.

This new racism discussed by Tesler and Sears focuses on the individual without regard for the history of the society in which the individual lives. There are certainly people who are able to overcome great challenges and racial disparities, but it is a mistake to look at those who do succeed in a vacuum and assume that racial tensions and barriers do not matter or do not exist. Our history of repression still has ramifications today, even though history’s impact is obscured and not easily understood. Our failure to accept that historical racial attitudes still shape the climate and opportunities of people today actually furthers racial disparities by assuming that racial problems have been solved and do not exist. When we create bills that favor meritocracy we sound as though we are acting in an egalitarian manner and are being fair to all people, but we end up advantaging those who have been privileged in the past at the expense of those who are exceptional and can succeed but are in challenging social positions that limit their ability to display or take advantage of their meritorious behavior.