Lastly, consider the bitterly contested presidential election contest of 2012. The optimistic interpretation, which I often like to emphasize, suggests that Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by maintaining the multiracial coalition that elected him in 2008. True. However, his share of the white vote went down, while the vote he received from Latinos and Asians went up substantially. And increased black turnout was even more crucial to his victory margin in key battleground states. Does a black president mean the end of race mattering in our politics? Not hardly.
Yet I think it safe to forecast, with Nate Silver-like authority, that 2013 will be another year of headlines trumpeting the march of postracialism. It is a pattern from 2012 that I would rather not repeat. There is no avoiding it, I suspect, as every minuscule trend or change is routinely blown wildly out of proportion relative to the main underlying realities of day-to-day life.
Schulyer understood this pattern well. Max Disher, Bunny Brown and their scientific collaborator Dr. Junius Cookman devise a formula that is very successful and quickly becomes all the rage, turning black to white, seeming to wash away the “Negro problem.” A key issue emerges. While adults may whiten their own appearance, any children they bear continue to be born black. Moreover, the importance of race to self-identity and to the larger national politics keeps reasserting itself.
The whole process creates unending complex machinations for Disher, Brown and America writ large in Schulyer’s tale. The key implication of the book, for me, is that you cannot invest nearly 300 years of law, social arrangements, practice and culture in creating a racial divide and then, with the wave of a wand, pretend that it has all vanished.
The current habit of America’s vastly exaggerated self-congratulation for each minor to modest step toward racial progress is a case in point. Following Schuyler’s insight from Black No More, all the bellowing about moving toward postracialism reveals less about how far we’ve come and much more about about just how far we have yet to go.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.