From Post-Racial to Hyper-Racial: America As Is

A week ago I was dreading the possibility of a nuclear war. Thoughts of radiation melting flesh flashed through my mind. Just a few words, uttered by the current U.S. president, activated a dark corner in my imagination. The rhetorical battle between North Korea and the U.S. spiraled at the same time that the world acknowledged the 72nd anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings.

At that point, I thought I had been pushed to the limit of my ability to be fully present in my ordinary life and the life of a world in transition. I was wrong. Then came Charlottesville. I was plunged back into that dark corner of my mind. This time the concern wasn’t nuclear war, but a race war on U.S. soil.

White nationalists groups descend on UVA campus (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

The images of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups clashing with counter-protesters began to flood my news feed. This onslaught of news resembled a remake of movies like American History X and Higher Learning. The outrageous display of hate and bigotry made me cringe and reminded me of how little America has changed.

Although I wasn’t surprised by what was unfolding, I was perplexed when thinking of these events in a larger context. These clashes brought me back to a shared sentiment after the election of Barack Obama. At that time, the public consciousness was in a radically different place. Many people thought his election would usher in a new era in U.S. politics — a post-racial America.

Obama after his last speech as president (Reuters)

The ascendancy of the first Black man to the highest post in the land was perceived as somewhat of a symbolic moment for national healing. I assumed the main hope was that, for once, we could move beyond the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. The U.S. could finally begin to absolve itself of the political relics of racial discrimination. As Dr. Michael Eric Dyson articulates in his book The Black Presidency, Obama’s legacy would prove to be more complicated and constraining than many of us expected.

Tea Party Protest (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A post-racial America was a figment of our imagination. Obama’s tenure pinched a nerve in our body politic. During Obama’s presidency, the Birther Movement questioned his legitimacy as Commander-in-Chief, and — by the end of his two terms — the racial fault lines of our democracy were further exposed.

Demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, protesting the death of Michael Brown (Scott Olson/Getty Image)

After the deaths of Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and several other unarmed civilians at the hands of law enforcement, waves of protests engulfed the nation. Relations between police and communities of color were inevitably fraught with distrust. The tragic massacre at the Emmanuel AME Church by a white extremist gunman interested in sparking a race war added to the sentiment that Black lives do not matter.

My intention here is not to regurgitate what we already know — that race in America is as problematic as ever — but to invite us to consider whether we have entered a new phase in our collective development. Considering the emergence of Trump as our Commander-in-Chief, the “Muslim ban,” aggressive immigration policies, the unapologetic resurgence of weaponized white supremacist groups, continued police brutality in communities of color, and the suggestion that affirmative action disadvantages Whites — it seems as though we are on hyperdrive when it comes to racial tensions and racialized politics.

KKK protest in Columbia, S.C. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

Now, calling this moment in American history “hyper-racial” might be a misnomer. Framing the era this way might be an academic exercise in futility. This time-period might just be another cyclical flare up of the sins of our past. But, one thing we can be sure of is that we need to reckon with America as is — structurally weakened by its racist past and present. Our chickens are coming home to roost. We can no longer hide from ourselves. Charlottesville is our mirror — a harsh reflection of what this country was and still is. To make sense of what is unfolding around us, we need to behold the problem in its entirety. To this end, it may be useful to view ourselves in a hyper-racial state to account for the acceleration of racial tensions and actively work through the sense of urgency overwhelming us all. If we don’t wake up and respond accordingly, the violence that unfolded in Charlottesville could become commonplace.