At the University of Minnesota on Nov. 4, 2008, there was yelling and cheering in the mall outside Northrop Auditorium. Along the streets of the West Bank, celebrations could be heard as a nation rejoiced at a racial and political victory long deserved.
The United States experienced a historic moment: the election of our first black president. Now, one year after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, we are beginning to see the repercussions – positive and negative – of this groundbreaking night.
The number of incoming first-year college and university students who said they believe it’s important to support racial understanding dropped in 2009, down 4.2 percentage points from 2008.
First-year students that rated “helping to support racial understanding” as “very important” or “essential” to their personal beliefs fell to 33.1 percent in 2009, according to UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey, released early this year.
One could, as the survey did, attribute this decrease to the election of Obama.
While Obama’s election should be seen as a victory in equality, these statistics point to a belief that America now exemplifies a post-racial society, an idea that is not only wrong, but dangerous.
Jesus Estrada Perez, a first-year graduate student in the University’s Department of American Studies, said if people stop thinking about racism as an issue, programs designed to counteract racism will not receive support.
“A great example is affirmative action,” said Estrada Perez, a member of La Raza student group. “It’s a huge issue, and if people no longer think racism is a problem, then they don’t think there’s any need for affirmative action, which is scary.”
College campuses and student groups have long been the catalyst of social movements, including the fight for civil rights and the movement against the Vietnam War.
Our University is no different. In 1969, 70 students took over Morrill Hall with demands to end discrimination and increase racial equality of services for African-American students. More recently, the Twin Cities campus has been host to peaceful protests on social issues ranging from marches against the U.S. military operation in the Middle East to this week’s demonstration against the Israeli occupation in Gaza.
When only 33.1 percent of incoming freshmen nationwide believe helping to promote racial understanding is important, the primary stage to discuss and advance political discourse and social commentary may be eroding.
The Fall 2009 University of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus College Portrait showed that of 33,236 undergraduate students, 73 percent are white. This overwhelming proportion may be detrimental to our understanding of minority cultures.
In a campus population where diversity stands out rather than being the norm, students may be more apt to point out divisions and stereotypes between groups rather than interacting with minorities on a more personal, day-to-day level.
If the majority of students do not see or feel the effects of inequality every day or even experience minorities in class, the importance of these issues may be less noticed and therefore garner less attention.
It is important for students to remember that the fight for equality is not only one fought by minorities themselves, but it crosses racial boundaries and speaks to the very notions of what we believe it means to be American.
La Raza, for example, has a large population of East African members. Despite the group’s focus on Central and South American issues, the racial diversity within the group exemplifies the notion that one does not have to be a specific racial minority to want to learn and experience different cultures.
Believing the election of Obama has swept away racism in America assumes that the racial struggles that America faces can be simplified to the African-American struggle for equality. The American Civil Rights Movement has produced a rhetoric in which ethnic and racial struggles have been placed in the contexts of black and white.
Even the New York Times on election night personified this feeling of ending racism with one large gesture, stating, “Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive.”
The American Civil Rights Movement and the African-American struggle for equality as a whole has earned its place as the signifying movement for equality in America. But the idea that electing a black president has solved all of the racial tensions and inequalities for blacks or other minority groups in America is in itself a blow to equality movements for all racial and ethnic groups within the U.S.
“I don’t honestly think I’ll ever live to see the day a Chicano or Mexican American will ever be president,” said Estrada Perez, “because we are so focused on this black-and-white racial dichotomy.”
The idea of achieving a post-racial America rests on the belief that equality, peace and social justice are concrete items on a check list that will be achieved at a certain time and place. That we can definitively mark a day, time or year when these ideas have been achieved undermines the very notion of the social progress upon which these ideals were founded.
Nora Leinen welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.