Yes, everyone is going ga-ga over Obama, and there is a reason for it. The reason has nothing to do with Obama’s promise to introduce “change” to America, since it remains unclear what kind of change Obama will introduce, and whether this will actually improve our economy and make us safer. Recognizing that Obama is untested material, the media has been focusing on the historic significance of Obama’s presidency. Never mind, we hear, that he gave a pedestrian inauguration speech without a single memorable line. As several pundits observed, the real significance was in who Obama is and on what his inauguration represented.
As I watched Obama take the oath of office, I was moved, along with many others, but I also felt a sense of vindication. In 1995 I published a controversial book The End of Racism. The meaning of the title was not that there was no more racism in America. Certainly in a big country one can find many examples of racism. My argument was that racism, which once used to be systematic, had now become episodic. In other words, racism existed, but it no longer controlled the lives of blacks and other minorities. Indeed racial discrimination could not explain why some groups succeeded in America and why other groups did not.
The old civil rights model held that groups at the top of society got there through discrimination. Yet the empirical evidence showed that the two most successful groups in America were Asian Americans and Jews. Certainly these two groups didn’t succeed by keeping everyone else down; rather, they succeeded by out-competing everyone else. Moreover, these were minority groups that had not allowed discrimination to keep them down. As for African Americans, their position near the bottom rung of the ladder could be better explained by cultural factors than by racial victimization.
One of the new terms that The End of Racism coined was the idea of “rational discrimination.” The basic idea here is that there are two kinds of discrimination: one is based on prejudice, and the other is based on conclusions. If groups are hated just for their skin color, then this is irrational discrimination. But if groups provoke hostility on account of their behavior, then this is rational discrimination. The implication of this idea is that it is not racist to be wary of African Americans who behave badly, as long as you are well disposed toward African Americans who conduct themselves admirably.