CHICAGO (NNPA) – Despite the overwhelming election of President Barack Obama, the inherent prejudice against people of color remains alive and well in American society, said a panel of Black intellectuals, critics and activists last week.
''This whole notion of a post-racial society is ridiculous, we need to stop saying it, we need to stop even talking about it,'' said BET's Jeff Johnson. ''Let's be honest about the fact that many of us from all races are racist…. We've lied about progress.''
The statement was part of an assessment of the ''State of Black America,'' an annual conversation held at the yearly convention of the National Urban League, which produces a report of the same name.
Johnson's statement emerged out of a conversation that revolved around – you guessed it – beer.
Even here at the Urban League, the media's binge on the Thursday tête-à-tête between President Barack Obama, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge, Mass. Police Sgt. James Crowley to discuss the officer's arrest of Gates in his own home and the president's resulting criticism continued.
But unlike some in the media who saw the meeting as a significant step forward in resolving the issue of racial profiling and the underlying prejudice, many on the panel thought it was a mostly empty gesture.
''It is a significant brouhaha [but] I'm not sure it gets to what 'ales' (ails) us,'' commented George Washington University professor Michael Eric Dyson. ''The real problem is still on the streets where disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino men and women are subjected to arbitrary forms of police power.''
Johnson agreed in even starker terms.
''I'm offended by the discussion at the White House,'' the political commentator said, ''because if they were serious about solving this problem, Gates would be there, Crowley would be there, but so would Tyrone and Shaniqua and other young people who have dealt with this kind of psychosis from the police; they are not represented in this conversation.''
Asked by moderator, CNN special correspondent Soledad O'Brien, about Sgt. Crowley's questioning of Gates' anger at being asked to produce several IDs and the professor's lack of gratitude for the officer's presence, MSNBC political analyst Michelle Bernard said she hoped the White House talk would foster better understanding.
''I think the most important thing that has to come out of this meeting today is an understanding of where each person is coming from—that's what's missing from the debate,'' she said. ''I don't think other races have a fundamental understanding of why we feel the way we do [about police].''
She continued, ''[But] if we're going to talk about a quote unquote 'post-racial America' – I still don't understand what that means – it's not just talking about history, it's talking about what it is that people feel when a White man shows up at your door and you've worked very hard to get where you are and they say, 'Show me your ID.'''
Where Gates was coming from is a history of Black men like Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo, who have been shot and killed by police, and longtime criminal policies that disproportionately target Black and Hispanics, several on the panel said. And those structural inequities would not be addressed by looking only at individual cases like Gates'.
''We're looking at a macro problem through micro lens,'' said Schott Foundation President John Jackson, who said the larger problem was the law enforcement environment created by former President Ronald Reagan.
''In 1980, the Reagan administration institutionalized new criminal justice policies [and] you began to see a 70 degree spike in the number of incarcerations for Black males,'' Jackson said. ''So we can't have this conversation without talking about the systemic policies and practices. And you're not going to solve that macro challenge by just tipping back a few beers at the White House.''
Johnson said solving that overarching problem of deep-seated racism is something that has to happen on a personal level, he's more concerned about acts of discrimination within government agencies.
''I don't care if you're racist or not…I am concerned with the way you do your job,'' he said.
Calling for the federal government to withhold funding from police departments that practice racial profiling and for the empowerment of citizen review boards to conduct reviews of police behavior, Johnson said it will take the coordinated effort of community organizations to push for those changes.
''If we're going to be serious, it is not President Obama's job. It is the job of organizations like the National Urban League [and] the NAACP,'' he said. ''There are roles each of us has to play. But we are playing checkers instead of playing chess. And so the movement is, 'well, I want my organization to get to the end and king me.' And we're just sliding across the board as kings and not really making any impact.''
Stephanie J. Jones, executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute and editor-in-chief of the ''State of Black America Report'' agreed that such a collective approach is necessary to solving the myriad issues that plague the Black community.
In response to a query about the ''main'' issue facing African Americans, Jones said there is none because ''so many of these issues (criminal justice, education, economic power and health) are interrelated.''
She added, ''All of these things have to be dealt with in a comprehensive way and that's why it feels overwhelming.''
Citing her experience with low-income mothers in Washington, D.C., Bernard said she believes education is the main concern.
''I believe education is the great equalizer and that's something we should be beating the streets for and demanding,'' she said.
There were some who disagreed with Bernard's postulation that a good education would automatically bring parity to African American communities.
Princeton University professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell said the idea mirrored comedian and actor Bill Cosby's theory that ''if we would all just be sufficiently respectable – pull up your pants, stop listening to hip-hop, name your kid Tina instead of Tanisha, whatever … you can attain equality.''
She said, ''If nothing else, the Gates' arrest proves the lie that is the Cosby thesis. Education does not save in that moment.''
Dyson mirrored Harris-Lacewell's concern that Blacks have to be ''super citizens'' in order to be accepted in American society, saying Gates' case proved that such effort does not change the basic facts. ''Don't buy the fallacy that your education and your pedigree – whether you're at Harvard or the White House – exempt you from being treated like a n-gg-r,'' he said, eliciting cheers. ''High-, middle-class and educated elites must never think that they're not implicated [in discriminatory acts] against Taniqua and Shaniqua and Mohammed because on the wrong day, that could be your Black a-s too.''
Saying progress lies in the election by communities of politicians that represent their interests, Dyson added that Blacks also need to hold those lawmakers responsible – beginning with President Obama.
''I'm a lover of that brother … but you've got to call him on the stuff he's not doing right,'' Dyson said, pointing to what he saw as Obama's unnecessary ''non-apology apology'' for his criticism of Gates' arrest. ''You shouldn't expect more from the president of the United States because he's Black, but you [darn] sure should not expect less of him.''