U.S. Racial History Less Understood Among Post-Racial Generation, Scholars Say

In her journalism classes on multimedia, first at Emerson College and now at Boston University, Michelle Johnson presents a lesson on stereotyped images. She displays a 2005 picture from the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., a summer feature photo of a young Black girl gorging on a slice of watermelon. Then she asks her students, nearly all of them White, “Would you run this picture?”

The initial reaction has grown predictable. “The bigger group has no clue. They don’t know what the problem is,” says Johnson, a visiting associate professor of journalism who arrived at Boston University last fall.

To provide context, Johnson shows historical images of caricatured Black people feasting on watermelon.

“Most, but not all of them, get it,” says Johnson, who’s African-American. “Every time I do this, a couple of them say, ‘It’s history. I don’t see what the problem is. It’s a picture of a little girl eating watermelon.’”

Without using the phrase, those students are characterizing the country as “post-racial,” a description the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal has popularized since the election of President Barack Obama. They are saying the racism attached to certain images is, literally, history.

The neat division they imagine between the past and present, though, fades in another part of Johnson’s classroom exercise. She asks students to list any stereotypes about African-Americans they know. The classroom’s white board fills up. “They throw out every stereotype you know about Black people,” she says.

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler, an associate dean of Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies who gives speeches on campuses around the country, worries it is more than a minority of White college students that believe race no longer matters.

“‘We don’t really see color. We only see people,’” he says, quoting students he’s encountered around the country. “The issue is not whether you see color. You can’t celebrate diversity without seeing differences. We want people to react differently to differences.”

Though interpersonal friction between students of different races has diminished, Metzler says racial assumptions still are at play, including the presumed academic inferiority of African-American or Hispanic students who have made it through competitive admissions processes.

“The way that translates into the classroom is when students are given the task of picking groups to work on projects, we still see segregated groups,” says Metzler. “Students of color themselves don’t escape critique. There are students of color who do their best to disguise their race or ethnicity. A lot of them have internalized the worst stereotypes.”

Metzler considers the problem similar to what Johnson encounters in her classes. “My concern is that students don’t have enough of a historical context to understand racism,” he says.

His proposed solution resembles her classroom instruction but is comprehensive — to require all freshmen, as part of campus-orientation programs, to watch and discuss the classic films “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” because of their clear images of racial subordination.

When Johnson asks her journalism students where they learned of stereotypes about African-Americans and other groups, including Hispanics, blondes and gay men, they tell her from television, news stories and “particularly in movies.”

Darrell J. Bennett Jr., a Morehouse College graduate and Harvard University law student, belongs to the younger generation that Johnson and Metzler, both baby boomers, agree is more hopeful about race.

“Things are definitely progressing. There’s a changing of attitudes,” says Bennett, 24. “It’s a new era but it’s not post-racial.”

When asked what defines the “new era,” Bennett suggests Obama’s election is overturning prevailing assumptions about the capabilities of Americans of color — particularly the assumptions they make about themselves. “I’ve always thought the biggest problem for minorities is not believing they’re good enough,” he says.

Bennett recalls his father’s response when he expressed a childhood ambition to become president. “‘Darrell, there’s never going to be a Black president,’” he quotes his father as saying. “That was such a crushing feeling.”

The Obamas’ presence in the White House, Bennett says, gives African-Americans, especially younger ones, an enlarged sense of “what they can do.” He does not mean the country has become “post-racial,” a proposition he has heard some Harvard students debate, though he says, “I haven’t heard a Black person use it.”

Are attitudes different on historically Black campuses?

Dr. Carleen Leggett, a modern languages professor at Morgan State University who directs its successful Fulbright program, has a long, unusual view as a White academic who grew up in segregated Mississippi and has taught at the Baltimore-based institution since 1968.

“Do students think we live in a ‘post-racial society’? In general, I’d say no,” she says. “When it comes to race relations, they have a more optimistic outlook in general than those of the Jesse Jackson era.”

A minority of Morgan State students do appear to dissent from that view. Dr. Joy Myree-Mainor, an assistant professor of English, points out that many of her students “claim to live in a post-racial society” and “don’t want to identify with African-American characters” in literature.

In her journalism classes at Boston, Johnson says none of her few minority students have ever demonstrated anything approaching a “post-racial” response to the photo of the watermelon-eating girl, which drew many angry comments about racial stereotypes from readers when first published in the News & Record.

“Black students get this immediately. They’ll look up at the screen and start laughing,” she says. “I’ve never had a student of color say it’s not a big deal. It’s the White students.”

Johnson has been doing the exercise on stereotyped images for a few years. For most of that period, Deval Patrick, an African-American, has occupied the Massachusetts governor’s office.

Then a year ago Obama won the presidency, perhaps buttressing the views of her White students who see a post-racial country. “I’m expecting, over time, that that number will go up,” Johnson says. “They’ll say, ‘We have a Black president, let’s move on.’”

Metzler argues that two incidents last year with racial or ethnic overtones demonstrated that Obama’s presidency does not support that conclusion. One was the arrest of Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates in his home in Cambridge, Mass. The other was the conservative backlash after the Supreme Court nomination of Sonya Sotomayor and her statement that, in deciding court cases, “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a White male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Obama had to “step back” from both episodes and limit his comments about them, Metzler said.

“Why is it the most powerful man in the world can’t have a conversation about race?” he said. “He can have a conversation about anything else. That is the context of a racialized society.”

Similarly, Metzler argues, avoiding the subject on campus is what smoothes relations between the college students of different races.

“They’re different on the race question because they’ve mastered the politically correct dialect on race,” Metzler says. “As to understanding the lingering implications of race, I have not seen that.”