After election assumptions about race still inaccurate
By Karin Fleming
Bianca Fonseca woke up on Nov. 5 with dried tears on her cheeks. It was the day after Barack Obama was elected president; the day after her and her friends sat on her living room couch and cried when the decision was announced.
“For us it means so much to have someone like him,” says Bianca, a senior at Ithaca College.
By “us” Bianca is referring to people of color. As a Puerto Rican-American, to see a black man elected into the highest office in the country resonates with her differently in contrast to white Americans. While whites celebrated a historical election and the fall of the last racial barrier, people of color were torn between feelings of happiness and sadness.
“I cried when he won,” says Kyra Hickman, an African-American senior at IC. “I cried for a week… It’s because I couldn’t believe he won and, in some sense, I wasn’t ready for him to win.”
As soon as Obama became the first biracial president-elect in U.S. history, the idea that the country transformed overnight into a post-racial society was propagated everywhere. The assertion is that Obama’s election proves that race is no longer an issue in America.
But for Bianca, Kyra and many people of color, race has — and will continue to — influence nearly every aspect of their lives. To them, the idea that the last racial barrier has fallen is divorced from reality.
Bianca grew up in a predominantly Italian-American community in the Bronx. There also was the presence of Hispanics, African-Americans and Indians in the neighborhood. “Growing up I hadn’t realized the racial differences in my community,” says Bianca. “From before I came to college, I was kind of in a bubble.”
Looking back, however, Bianca reflects on the large a role race has played in her life, particularly regarding her education. “I always was a good student,” she says. “But for some reason I was always put into the worst class. And the best classes in our elementary and middle schools was always a class, I realize now, that was predominantly white.”
While this may appear to be a subjective analysis tainted by time, the phenomenon Bianca is talking about is a common occurrence. A 1998 study by the Applied Research Center titled “Education and Race” found that high school students of color are more than twice as likely to be placed in vocational classes over academic classes, and have less access to advanced classes or programs in general. In addition, 40 percent of public schools in big cities are considered “intensely segregated,” meaning that more than 90 percent of the students are children of color. So while state-sanctioned segregation remains illegal, the reality is that the segregation between white students and students of color still occurs.
“Institutions continue to have seemingly race-neutral policies whose effects detrimentally affect communities of color,” says Paula Ioanide, a professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race & Ethnicity (CSCRE) at Ithaca College. In a society that views success as contingent on the level of education one receives, these statistics suggest that this assumption largely excludes the experiences of minority students.
Bianca graduated high school at the top of her class. However, without having access to advanced courses, such as calculus and physics, she arrived at Ithaca College feeling her experiences failed to prepare her for continuing her education.
“From the beginning I was not set up well for college,” says Bianca. “Yes, I was the smartest kid in my school, but here it was different. I had to work extra hard because I didn’t have the basic competencies needed to survive here.”
The reality, that minorities have to work harder than their white peers to succeed, flies in the face of the rhetoric surrounding discussions of race. By blaming minorities for their lack of success–and thus ignoring the structures that force them to remain where they are–whites and other privileged groups “continue to refuse to see the ways they are complicit in perpetuating inequalities on the basis of race and gender,” says Ioanide.
“In my case, I felt they already trapped me into my future,” says Bianca of her middle and high school experiences. “They already knew what they wanted me to do. And I missed out on a lot of opportunities because of that.”
Now Bianca is about to enter her final semester at IC. The last three and a half years have tested her strength and sense of identity in ways she wouldn’t have dreamed of if she were still in New York City. During this period, she’s faced racist remarks and stereotypes from fellow classmates, lost her mother to cancer, took in her 19-year-old sister and 14-year-old brother and began working two jobs in addition to being a full-time student.
“In reality, a lot of people do not understand the situations that we have to go through,” says Bianca. “I am poor and I am Hispanic and every day I have to face that. I’m in a school that’s predominantly white; a lot of them have their own stereotypes about me.”
Stereotypes manifest themselves in many ways. Early in her college career, her roommate would tell her that Hispanics were “lazy” or “incompetent” and that is the reason people of color haven’t been able to pull themselves out of poverty.
Ioanide describes this trend as a direct result of the changes in the way society views race after the civil rights struggles of the ’60s and ’70s. Prior to the civil rights movement, discrimination was overt — Jim Crow laws, segregation, cross burnings, racial killings, etc. But after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the legal changes that followed, society began to view blacks and whites as equals, which presumes the reason minorities continue to be behind is due to their behavior.
“If you assume this level playing field and ignore the intergenerational effects of institutional racism,” says Ioanide, “the cause of existing inequalities is erroneously attributed to ‘inadequate’ individual behavior.”
The problem with this notion is that it disregards the structural racial inequalities that persist in our country. Bianca’s problems at her high school were not just due to a lack of funding and segregated districts. Discrepancies in education–as well as in housing, health care, wages, and the list goes on — are much deeper than they appear, especially with the prevalence of this ‘blame the victim’ mentality. The struggles faced by today’s minorities are very much contingent on the struggles of their parents’ and grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations.
For Bianca, this is exemplified by her interactions with her mother after coming home from high school. Bianca is the first in her family to go to college; neither her older sister nor her mom finished high school. So she found herself staying after school to get extra help. “I had to try to do whatever I could because when I did come home, [my mom] always felt bad she couldn’t help,” says Bianca. “And I had to learn a lot more so that I could help my brother and my sister.”
Bianca’s story is unique, but it echoes many of the racial challenges people of color face. But in this “post-racial” society, rather than recognizing these challenges, the majority of society seems to instead prefer placing Obama’s accomplishments on the entire African-American community. This promotes the idea that there is “no longer an excuse” for minorities to fail.
This concept is ridiculous, especially since it denies Obama’s own agency and his unique history–the son of a white mother, who ultimately earned her Ph.D., who was raised by his white grandparents with little interaction with his African family.
“People, by not recognizing how invisible [Obama] had to make his race, that’s why they’re not understanding that we’re not in a post-racial–and certainly not a post-racist–society,” says Kyra Hickman.
So on Nov. 5 when Bianca woke up, she, unlike much of America, was not under the delusion that things would be substantially different for her. She’s still a 21-year-old full-time college student working two jobs while simultaneously taking care of her siblings. She still wakes up at 6:30 in the morning to see her brother and sister off to school, attends classes through the day, races home on breaks to make dinner before running off to work until midnight. By the time Bianca does her school work and goes to bed, it’s already the next day. And it’s not long after her head hits the pillow before the cycle starts again.
“For me Obama’s election shows a stepping stone,” says Bianca. “It’s not something where I think that now our troubles with race are completely eliminated. I don’t believe that. I think even more so we’re more slaves now then we were before. Because all eyes are going to be on us; if he does anything wrong it’s going to be ‘those people’ who are all the same.”
Karin Fleming is a senior journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.