Defining Progress

Racism has always been a hot topic in certain circles, but, especially with President Clinton's recent call for a national dialogue on race, race rhetoric seems to be taking on unprecedented proportions. In particular, we hear more frequently how pervasive and over-whelming racism is today and how much progress has yet to be made. I imagine these are claims that confuse and make uncomfortable many white Americans (in as much as they are implicated as the guilty party). Confuse because there seems to be such a vast disparity between where blacks are today and where they once were that complaints about the racial oppression of blacks come off sounding exaggerated, if not downright whiny.

After all, blacks today have more opportunities available than ever before, and the black middle class, I've heard, is expanding at continually increasing rates. More and more black children, ostensibly, are growing up to attend prestigious colleges and secure employment. The lives black Americans lead today seem to be such a far cry from what life was like for blacks 150 years ago, or even 40 years ago, that I suspect the question of why black folks are still complaining has crossed the hearts, if not the progressive, liberal minds, of many non-black Americans.

It is a question voiced in the most recent Radcliffe Quarterly, which features a discussion on race at Harvard-Radcliffe. The panelists included author Abigail Thernstrom, who feels that blacks, and liberals in general, are entirely too pessimistic about the issue of race in America. She argues that statistics on the progress of blacks prove that the "we still have a long ways to go" attitude is unfounded. Things have changed, and in a few years, with blacks being educated at higher levels and in greater numbers, this will be even more evident than it already is. According to her, there aren't even grounds for complaining about the fact that there is only one tenured black female Harvard professor because, "We just need to let time take its course."

Since I am not in a position to question Thernstrom's statistical measures on the economic and educational advancement of blacks, the progress of black Americans is something I can gauge only by my own experiences. I sit here, a student at Harvard, the product of two parents who have yet to earn college degrees. It is likely that the job offers I might receive as a Harvard graduate will have starting salaries well over the combined income of my mother and father, who together supported a family of five. From this perspective, Thernstrom's argument appears to be legitimate: in terms of economic and educational success, the prospects for the rest of my life look a lot brighter than what they could have been just a generation ago.

And yet, for all the opportunity I have taken advantage of, I most definitely have had my confrontations with racism. What about the father of my classmate and friend in the second grade? I was not allowed into Dorothy's house when her father was present because, as he, a police officer, told me, "Black people are the source of all my problems." And what of the father of a former boyfriend? In the two years we were together, I was not once introduced to Andrew's father, who told his son that, while black women may be good for some things, having a real relationship with them wasn't among them. There were also the countless little things I was never quite sure were racially motivated, the restaurant that refused to seat me and my mostly black and Hispanic friends after prom, the mom who requested that another lifeguard perform first aid for her injured child, the doctor who looked at me funny when I told him I attend Harvard (yes, the one in Boston).


But certainly all these things pale in comparison to what it must have been like to be a slave or a black American in the '50s. Even in my most painful and profound encounters with racism, I have never felt the lash of a whip, or been used as a breeding machine, or been spit on for trying to enter a whites only school. Does this mean we have made progress against the foe of racism? Not nearly enough, as I see it. Because even though I may not know the smart of the whip any more than a white person, I do know the slap in the face of being reminded that a black person in this country can never just exist as a person: his humanity is always conditioned by race in exactly the same way that the humanity of a slave was denied by race. At least since the age of seven, my experiences with racism, as trifling as they may be, have kept me from passing a day without thinking consciously or subconsciously about my skin pigmentation. Even with the "little" things, the incidents that may or may not be racially motivated, the fact that the question even had to pop up in my head serve as reminder enough.

That, to me, is where the real oppression lies. The oppression that comes with having to continuously exhaust your energies making peace with your self and your black self. It is a phenomenon W. E. B. DuBois has termed "the dilemma of double-consciousness." White people have the privilege of rarely having to consider themselves in the bounded terms of their skin color. I was blessed with a supportive, nurturing family who knew enough to teach me that the exhaustion, the battle fatigue, is worth it. In our family, talking about racism wasn't about being pessimistic, it was about being optimistic: as long as it is worth discussing, it's worth fighting. And as long as you fight, you acknowledge the possibility of triumph.

While America should rightly applaud itself for the advancements in opening educational and economic opportunities to blacks, the ominous cloud of racism does loom overhead. You can be the wealthiest, most highly educated, most successful black person in the world, but as long as you are constantly forced to view your wealth, education or success in the context of your socially-constructed blackness, substantial progress has yet to be made against racism and white supremacy. As Malcolm X put it, "You just can't stab a man in the back nine inches, pull the knife out three inches, and call that progress."

Carine M. Williams '00 is an Afro-American studies and social anthropology concentrator residing in Leverett House. Her column will appear on alternate Wednesdays.

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