By Guest Contributor Andrew Grant-Thomas, originally published at RaceTalk.org
What a long, strange year it’s been.
A year that began with the loud insistence by some that Barack Obama’s election confirmed the United States as an essentially colorblind, post-racial nation went on to present a series of spectacular counterpoints to that claim – flaps over Attorney General Eric Holder’s “nation of cowards” race speech, Joe Wilson’s shouted “you lie!” during the president’s health care address, Professor Henry Louis Gates’ encounter with a white police officer at his home, the Senate inquiry into Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment, and more.
And yet, while President Obama’s State of the Union address sprinkled references to several categories of people and communities about whom he expressed concern, race was altogether absent from his remarks. “Small towns and rural communities” received early mention. So, too, did “those who had already known poverty,” “working families,” “small business owners,” “first-time homebuyers,” gays in the military, women (with respect to equal pay laws), and, of course, “middle-class Americans,” among others. Race? Ethnicity? Nothing.
As a matter of political calculus, the silence was unremarkable and unsurprising, coming as it did from a president reluctant to publicly tread the ground of race except, at times, in the context of his personal biography. However, with respect to on-the-ground realities and the opportunity presented for social transformation, a continued failure to engage race would be devastating.
The pain of economic recession has been felt widely, but not equally. President Obama noted that 1 in 10 Americans could not find work. (The fraction would be much larger if we included those so discouraged that they have stopped looking for work and therefore are not included among the “officially” unemployed.) He didn’t tell us that joblessness is much worse for African Americans (1 in 6) and for Latinos (1 in 8 ) and has worsened much faster for them than for Americans as a whole. The president referred to declining home values. He did not acknowledge that African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and women have borne the brunt of the resulting dramatic loss in wealth. He pointed out that in the 21st century “one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education.” However, the president neglected to mention that young Latino adults earn bachelor’s degrees at one-third the rate of their white peers, and that African Americans earn degrees at only half the rates of whites.