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.
When I first published these arguments, they produced a maelstrom of controversy. My book came out around the time of the O.J. Simpson verdict, exonerating him for killing his ex-wife, and also the Million Man March on Washington. (Since we lived in the nation’s capital at the time, I prudently skipped town during the weekend of the Million Man March.) So the racial atmosphere in the country was a bit raw, and even some conservatives were unnerved by my claims.
I may have been ahead of my time, but it now seems that I was not wrong. Here we get to the real significance of Obama’s election and his ascendancy to the presidency. Consider the oceans of ink that have been spilled over the past couple of decades about how America is a racist society, how bigotry runs in the veins of white America, how little real progress has been made, how far we still have to go, and so on. A few years ago I debated Jesse Jackson at Stanford University and he couldn’t give any evidence that contemporary racism had kept his children down. At the same time, he said that precisely the absence of evidence is what worried him the most. Jackson’s argument was that racism, once overt, had now become covert. In other words, racism hadn’t decreased in the slightest but it now worked in ever-more-subtle ways to deny African Americans their share of the American dream.
Would anyone who had been drinking this intellectual Kool-Aid for the past several years have been prepared for Obama’s election? True, Obama is no Jesse Jackson. But precisely the difference between the two shows that it is individual conduct and demeanor that is decisive here, not skin color. Obama doesn’t come across as a race-hustler. He doesn’t seek to turn victimization into profit. Rather, he makes his claims on the merits and he appeals to shared American ideals. To borrow a line from Martin Luther King, Obama seeks to be judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. And Americans have responded to that, so that King’s dream has become a tangible reality in Obama’s life. “Rational discrimination”? You be the judge.
If Obama’s election means anything, it means that we are now living in post-racist America. That’s why even those of us who didn’t vote for Obama have good reason to celebrate.