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May 1, 2012 / Sandy Asher


The United States is well on the road from racism to racialism, but that’s not the same as moving toward a post-racist society.

Racism refers to notions of superiority and inferiority dictated by unfounded beliefs about cultural, intellectual, historical, and physical differences, including color.  Racism leads to efforts to impose domination and/or separation along those perceived lines of differentiation. 

Racialism refers to a group of people belonging to the same stock, and/or unified by history, habits, and interests, who may choose to associate primarily with their own.  Racialism centers on a minority group’s positive self-perception and on the majority’s openness to difference. 

Even in slavery, blacks created an informal culture that sought to preserve memories, customs, and cuisine brought from their homelands. They formed their own churches, which provided comfort and hope.  Past and present experiences held in common continue to build a sense of community.  At the same time, the trend toward “multiculturalism” that began in the 1960s indicates the majority’s growing acceptance of and respect for minority distinctions.

Post-racism refers to a place where no one thinks about race anymore and where economic opportunity and political participation operate in a race-free environment.

Obviously, America is not a post-racist country.  The blurry line dividing the other two appellations — racism and racialism — is crossed daily in overt and subtle ways.  The line’s vagueness and the sometimes inadvertent crossing of it reflect the very different American experiences of blacks and whites.  The recent shooting death in Sanford,Florida, of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, for instance, was seen by many blacks as another instance of racial profiling.  But feelings of outrage and sadness and a demand for justice crossed all racial borders.


Slaves brought to these shores beginning in the 1600s were treated as property, and portrayed as children who needed to be taken care of — lazy, promiscuous, intellectually inferior, unattractive, deceptive, and dangerous.  They worked from dawn to dusk while the threat of the whip hovered over them.  The break up and sale of families occurred regularly.  Nothing good came from a racist system that denied its victims autonomy, the essence of what it means to be a human being.

The end of Reconstruction (1865-1877) was the beginning of nearly one hundred years of government-sanctioned racism under the misleading label of “separate but equal.” “Uppity negroes” were kept in place by economic intimidation and violence —beatings, lynchings, cross burnings, and race riots. 

Resistance to the end of the “Jim Crow laws” in the South (1954) was expressed in six murders, twenty-nine firearm casualties, forty-four beatings, and sixty bombings in a single year.

Our country’s legally racist society persisted for nearly 250 years because African-Americans were exempted from the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Well into the Civil War, preserving the Union, not ending slavery, was the foremost objective.  Later, the judiciary upheld the constitutionality of Jim Crow laws, including the Supreme Court landmark decision in Plessy v.Ferguson (1896), which let stand the decision to jail Homer Plessy, considered an African-American because he was one-eighth black, for sitting in a Lousianna railroad car meant for whites.

Racism reared its ugly head throughout the heyday of the civil rights movement.  Police beat peaceful protestors and jailed thousands of marchers. The bombing of a Birmingham church killed four little black girls, buses carrying northern freedom riders were overturned and set on fire, and three student voter registration volunteers in Mississippi were tortured and murdered.  OnMarch 7, 1965, thousands of voting-rights advocates planned to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery only to come up against a police riot, now known as Bloody Sunday, that sent seventy demonstrators to the hospital.

Given their abandonment by the legal system and the antagonism or apathy of most whites, it’s not surprising that blacks took the lead in the quest to end racism. Figures like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Mary McLeod Bethune, Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dr. Martin Luther King, among many others, rose to prominence promoting freedom and equality in their times.


While race still matters in the United States, racialism means it matters less.  Examples abound of how racialism has replaced racism in virtually every area of American life.

The last large “race riot” took place in 1991 in South Central Los Angeles following the videotaped brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King and an all-white jury’s subsequent acquittal of the officers involved.  Though they didn’t riot, many whites, along with the majority of blacks, felt and expressed outrage at the injustice. 

During the recent 47th anniversary commemoration of the march from Selma to Montgomery, the cause invoked was a protest against legislation forcing voters to show an identification card at the polls.  While such legislation will make it harder for minorities to exercise their franchise, it’s a far cry from the pervasive racism that gave rise to earlier marches.  In the words of Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who suffered a concussion during the Selma violence, the most noteworthy difference between then and now is “the distance we have come…. The governor then wouldn’t let us come to the steps of the [Alabama] capitol. This is a very moving day for me . . . .”

There are no more mass civil rights demonstrations on the order of those in the 1960s. The largest one in post-civil rights America took place in Jena,Louisiana, in 2006, a racially mixed town of about 3,000, where 20,000 African-American demonstrators gathered to protest the unfair sentences meted out to six black students who had beaten a white student unconscious.  The beating was in retaliation for the dangling of nooses from an oak tree by white students after a black student had asked sit in the shade of the tree “by custom” reserved for whites.

“There is a Jena in every state,” the Reverend Jesse Jackson told the assembled protestors. Yet most Jena blacks and whites resented their town being portrayed as a cauldron of bigotry.  While race relations there were not unblemished, they had improved significantly over time. “You have good people here and bad people here, on both sides,” said one black resident.  “This thing has been blown out of proportion.”  The “Jena 6” march, unlike those of the 60s, had no coattails, nor did the protest result in backlash.  

Another example of the transition to a racialist America is African-Americans’ success in removing much of the negativity associated with color by changing the connotations of darkness.  Black has become beautiful and not just for blacks.  Furthermore, the recent preference for being called blacks instead of African-Americans suggests greater comfort in being perceived first and foremost as black Americans.

A 2011 Gallup poll showed 86% of whites approved of marriage between blacks and whites, up from 48% in 1991.  Once frowned upon as “miscegenation” and illegal, black-white marriages increased sevenfold, from 51,000 to 363,000, between 1960 and 2000.  A Cornell-Ohio State analysis found that black-white marriages went from 3% in 1980 to 10.7% in 2008.

Today, black actors are cast in a variety of roles as heroes and villains, leaders and led, wealthy and poor, happy and sad. Interracial romances and friendships are common; black or interracial couples kissing and making love on the screen no longer shock. In the popular culture reflected in the mass media, blacks are portrayed as complex and diverse.

Contrast that with the 1960s, when Sidney Poitier was given the male lead in the interracial romance Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  To allay white audience backlash, the character he played was a physician of rare combined attributes:  wealthy, intelligent, handsome, well-dressed, articulate, and cultured.  The Cosby Show of the 1980s featured a doctor dad and a lawyer mom who raised beautiful children on good, old-fashioned, colorblind, middle-class values.

Today, African-Americans abound in the mass media as anchors, reporters, entertainers and models, despite the virtual end of affirmative action policies mandating ethnic group representation.

Blacks are present in the highest levels of government as well. Two recent Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, were African-Americans. There is a Black Caucus in the House of Representatives.

Only a year before Barack Obama’s election, in perhaps the worst-titled book in recent times, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can’t Win, conservative African-American intellectual Selby Steele argued that Obama could not win the presidency because he could not serve the aspirations of one race without betraying that of the other. Though the reasons for his victory are very complex, that Obama did win the nation’s highest office given the country’s racist past indicates that something new is in the air in racialist America.

A racialist society is not free of racial insensitivity or hyper-sensitivity.  We learn as we go – but we are learning.  Radio host Don Imus described the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”  Imus was fired.  Black syndicated columnist Dewayne Wickham was unhappy that Tiger Woods did not make a bigger deal of it when golf analyst Kelly Tilghman — Woods’ longtime friend — suggested his competitors might consider lynching him.  Tilghman apologized.  During Obama’s run for president, then rival Joe Biden labeled him as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”  Biden was taken to task, and then became Obama’s choice for Vice President.

An area of great sensitivity for blacks is being lumped together indiscriminately and deemed guilty by association. Umbrage is understandably taken, for instance, at the stereotyping of young, black males as invariably fatherless, drug-ridden, violent, and prison-bound.  The recent shooting death in Florida of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has brought attention to this issue, even while the feelings of sadness and outrage have crossed all racial borders.

In the aftermath of the August, 2011, random physical assaults and property damage on the streets of downtown neighborhoods adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania, many residents found off-putting the African-American mayor’s dressing down of the vandals — “You have damaged your race” — delivered before law-abiding citizens dressed in their Sunday best at a worship service.

Likewise, when in a May, 2004, address commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, comedian Bill Cosby went after young blacks immersed in a gangsta lifestyle of casual violence and male chauvinism, many in the African-American community denounced his remarks as vicious, untrue, and one-sided.

It should be noted that whites may well agree with blacks on both sides of sensitive issues, further evidence that the line between racism and racialism is in the process of being defined.

Music has long been a gateway to black acceptance in a white-dominated society and can now be seen as a harbinger of progress from racism to racialism.  Unlike Cab Calloway and others, black artists no longer find themselves performing in venues that deny them admittance as patrons.  On the flip side, the traditionally black Apollo Theatre in Harlem recently welcomed the debut presentation of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album with none of the alarm that met the appearance there of Buddy Holly in the 1950s.

Rap began as a rhythmic, verbal means of self-expression in the 1970s and became a major part of popular culture beginning in the 1990s.  Early artists like Grandmaster Flash offered political commentary about life in the ghetto, and like many peers, distanced himself from gang culture.  Ironically, hip-hop’s largest audience has always been young white males living in suburbia, perhaps bored with their less exciting lifestyles.

Current critical focus on gangsta rap does not deny the influence of more quintessential black musical genres.  The creative rhythms and exuberance of jazz must be included in any discussion of American music.  Blues and gospel heal and give hope to all listeners.  Forerunners of rock ‘n roll, these forms continue to inspire musicians and audiences of all kinds and all races.

High profile incidents of racism persist in racialist America:  the 1997 sodomizing of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn police station, for instance, and the shooting deaths of four unarmed black citizens byNew Orleans police officers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Racial sensitivity is also evident in the added dilemma African-Americans face in having to show their blackness in acceptable ways to other members of the group while bumping up against white and black expectations about their blackness in the workplace and social settings.  In no circumstances do whites have to prove their whiteness.  Though they continue to lag behind those of whites, black salaries have improved, but the gap in wealth from stocks and other non-salary forms of income remains astronomically high.  Too many blacks continue to experience daily injustices such as cabbies refusing to stop for them on city streets.  Still, none of this negates Congressman Lewis’s observation about how far we have come.

To describe our country as racialist is not the same as designating it post-racist.  A color-blind society in which race is no longer an issue or impediment to progress and in which we all see each other as individuals is an inspirational myth that remains in the realm of what ought to be but never can be.   Taken to its extreme, post-racism also suggests a society that denies individuality, history, and heritage.  

Human beings cannot avoid noting differences, including color.  What matters is what we do with what we see.


Nell Irwin Painter, The History of White People (2010)

Randall Kenan, The Fire This Time (2007)

Nikky Finney, Head Off and Split (2011)

Baratunde Thurston, How to Be Black (2012)


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  1. Charles Allman / May 2 2012 3:45 am

    Dr. Asher,

    I am so happy to have found this blog! As a former student, I really enjoy reading your thoughts on American life today. I was unaware of the racialism and post-racialism terms, and appreciate your clear explanation, and think you make a solid and convincing argument for a racialist designation of the United States at present.

    Although I have no desire to be critical, or nit-pick with you too much about minutiae, my childhood involved quite a few Sunday evenings watching The Cosby Show, and I am certain that it was Mrs. Huxtable who was the attorney, and Heathcliff Huxtable the OB/GYN. It is probably just an editing mistake, but I thought I would let you know…

    Thanks again for the great article. Keep it up!

    • Harvey Asher / May 2 2012 1:20 pm

      Charles —

      Great to hear from you!

      Thanks for your encouraging comments and for the Huxtable correction. My bad!

  2. Meryl Baer / May 3 2012 7:07 pm

    As usual, Harvey, a great article. I also was unaware of the term racialism. I enjoy reading and learning from your work!

  3. Johnny Boone / May 4 2012 12:56 am


    • Harvey Asher / May 4 2012 8:31 pm

      Let’s hope so, but until then settle for some improvement.

  4. Lynn Hinds / May 6 2012 2:44 pm

    Lots to think about. Thanks Harvey. Stephen Colbert exemplifies your point about post-racism with his satiric insistence that he cannot see color, thus he doesn’t know that he is white.
    I agree with you about past rationalizations. The South’s articulation of their reason for fighting a civil war was to preserve liberty. Their concept of liberty was based on slavery; if they did not preserve slavery their civilization would be “gone with the wind” and that would harm blacks as well as whites. But I would add that the language justifying that expressed a deep-seated fear of blacks that was extra-rational. The “connotations of darkness” as you put it have not disappeared. There is just enough truth in Bill Cosby’s portrait of urban blacks to continue to stoke those fears. Populations who have little contact with blacks still believe that and no amount of reasoning is likely soon to convert them.
    That’s for making us think, Harvey

    • Harvey Asher / May 8 2012 5:25 pm

      Love the Colbert line. You are right about Cosby and his remarks about the fear of urban blacks. I intentionally short-shrifted his comments to make a larger point consistent with my thesis. And if you’ve seen The Wire, you know how damn scary certain downtown neighborhoods can be. I look at the move toward racialism as a work in progress and by no means a finished deal.

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