A couple of weeks ago I attended a university brown bag on “The Gayborhood.” The presenter asked if any of us had heard the term “post-gay society,” likening it to the parallel term, “post-racial society.”
I said I didn’t see Topeka, where we live, as a “post-gay society.” Someone at the table smirked, “More like pre-gay.”
If “post-gay” seems like a pipe dream, then recent events at college campuses in my region and across the country remind us that the “post-racial society” is yet to be realized as well.
“Post-racial,” according to the online Oxford Dictionaries, refers to “a period or society in which racial prejudice and discrimination no longer exist.”
In a post-racial society, presumably, no one would fashion a swastika out of feces on a dorm wall, as reportedly happened in the events leading up to the student protests at the University of Missouri that toppled both the university’s president and chancellor. In a post-racial society the student body president at the University of Missouri would not have had the “n-word” yelled at him by people in a pick-up truck.
In a post-racial society 1,000 people would not be attending a forum on race at the University of Kansas, sparked by the protests at Mizzou, with students expressing, according to an article in the next day’s Topeka Capital-Journal, “stories of hurt, exasperation and anger.”
In a post-racial society, students of color would not be subjected to daily instances of more subtle forms of racism, commonly called “microaggressions.” In a recent AP article a student at West Virginia University reported that a white student had once picked up his things and moved across the classroom when she sat near him.
There was nothing micro about the racism in the segregated oil-boom town of Midland, Texas, where I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. In the sixth grade I sometimes covered my unruly hair with a hat I had bought at the two-story drug store that boasted it was Texas’s largest. The slogan on my hat proclaimed: “Save Your Confederate Dollars! The South Will Rise Again!” I was as oblivious to its political implications as I was later to the fact that I attended a high school named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and that our sports teams were the Lee High Rebels, and that our school song was “Dixie.”
By the time I was a senior in high school I was beginning to have a dawning racial awareness. It was 1967, and I had just seen the Sidney Poitier film, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” We were driving in the family’s Chevrolet when I announced my intention to date a black boy. Never mind that I didn’t know any. My high school was segregated; African American students attended Carver High School. Lee High was not integrated until a year after I graduated, in 1968, 14 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring separate but equal inherently unequal. The Confederate flag was prominently displayed in the gym and elsewhere during my years at Lee High School. It wasn’t taken down until 1991.
The “Stars and Bars” flag was still displayed at Mizzou in the late ’60s. In an interview on KCUR, Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, Leonard Graham, an African American engineer in Kansas City, and a University of Missouri alumnus, described the “black flag incident” to host Gina Kaufmann.
Graham was one of 300 black students out of a student body he reported at around 25,000. At football games at half-time, after the marching band played “Dixie,” spectators would wave Confederate flags. A fraternity would hoist a large Confederate flag that took two boys to hold.
In the incident Graham described, some African American students dyed a dorm bed sheet black, and hid it. At one of the televised football games, the black flag was displayed at half-time. A campus security officer asked the students to take it down. When he “unholstered” his service revolver, the black flag came down. But the Confederate flags and the singing of “Dixie” were ultimately banned.
I was amazed at this story. The South is one thing, but the Midwest is another. Or is it? As Graham pointed out during the show, “Central Standard,” Missouri was a slave state, and “vestiges” of that heritage remain.
The Nov. 15 Kansas City Starreported a revealing statement from Shawn Alexander, an associate professor in African and African-American Studies at the University of Kansas: “Now you’ve got second-generation black students who tell their parents what they’re seeing, and those parents say that’s the same thing they experienced. There’s a particular frustration to that.”
We are not a post-racial society, despite the election of our first African American president. Some of the raw displays of racism we have witnessed since Obama’s election — and toward the President himself — signal that along with what we hoped would be a new era comes a frightening backlash from an older one.
Much has changed, but bedrock prejudice remains. Perhaps the claim that we live in a “post-racial society” is an expression of hope, and maintaining hope is nothing short of a moral imperative in today’s uncertain world. I suspect, however, that the term “post-racial society” is also an expression of denial, an invitation to turn away from reality and pretend that racial equality has been achieved.
Recent events prove the term “post-racial” to be premature.