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Are We Beyond Race?

Morehouse's White Valedictorian

By Patrick Hill • August 2, 2008
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And it is because we are all products of the imminent tutelage of mother Morehouse our lineage is clear, our kinship is clear. I am proud to be your brother.
                        Joshua Packwood
                        Valedictorian, Morehouse College
                        May 9, 2008

The recent announcement that Joshua Packwood, a white student majoring in economics, would be named the valedictorian of this year’s graduating class at historically black, all-male, Morehouse College in Atlanta has predictably provoked anger, suspicion, and considerable grumbling among segments of the African American middle class.  Defenders of tradition at historically black colleges and universities (aka HBCUs) see these institutions as indispensable engines for the training of black intellectual elites and thus the first line of defense within any program of advancement within a society that has traditionally denied equal opportunities to higher education and social mobility based on race. As such, they interpret Packwood’s achievement as an unfair encroachment upon black terrain by a student who by virtue of his whiteness has unfettered access to the whole of American society (Packwood, in fact, turned down a scholarship offer to Columbia University to attend Morehouse).  And perhaps just as significantly, they see Morehouse deviating from its commitment to produce a masculine talented tenth capable of advancing the interests of the black community in a hostile society.  Indeed, Morehouse has, over the course of the 20th century, contributed many luminaries of black culture and public policymaking, including film director Spike Lee, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, philosopher/theologians Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  The addition of Joshua Packwood’s name to this list of Morehouse luminaries is, from this point of view, seen at best as a deviation from tradition and at worst a reversal of racial progress gained.

As familiar as such sentiments may sound to those of us who witnessed the heyday of civil rights era mobilizations, they have come to represent a minority opinion within the black community of today.  Most of the publicly expressed African American reaction to Packwood’s achievement has expressed little concern that the naming of a white valedictorian is an aggression against or somehow an effort to undermine black tradition or aspirations.  They see it instead as an expression of colorblind meritocracy.  In the words of Packwood’s classmate Stanton Fears “the best man got it.” Fears, like most of Morehouse’s 2008 graduating class, has experienced little of the blatant, state-sanctioned structural racism and racial terrorism that often constrained the physical movement and social aspirations of his parents.  Though they are usually cautious about saying so publicly, many among this group see Packwood’s detractors as narrow-minded relics whose antiquated racial logic fetishizes segregation and ignores the history of cross-racial and multiracial coalition so central to the struggle against it.  This group would likely offer as support of their position the story of Reconstruction-era philanthropists, union army officers, and missionaries such as Henry Morehouse; white patrons whose central role in the founding of HBCUs belies the race-warrior, black social uplift mythology so often promoted by these institutions and their alumni. 

From this perspective Joshua Packwood is as an affirmation of, rather than a threat to, the virtues of service, scholarship, and inclusion that has come to symbolize the 141-year history of Morehouse.  Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Packwood, whose Caucasian parents divorced when he was a child, spent the years after his mother remarried—most of his childhood in fact—in a household with an African American stepfather and interracial siblings.  Not unlike many of his African American classmates, Packwood also survived a checkered past (which, by his own account, included a stint dealing and using illegal drugs) with the help of African American mentors and coaches.  By the time he graduated from predominantly black Grandview High School in 2004, Packwood had rededicated himself to his studies.  By the time of his first contact with Morehouse recruiters the idea of attending an HBCU was not at all strange, as he had already been thoroughly socialized within an African American world.  Similarly, many of his classmates were also products of multiracial, post-Jim Crow social environment, where the decision to attend Morehouse was made out of an array of choices far greater than those that had existed for previous generations.

This embrace of Joshua Packwood reveals a refreshing—and in many respects, necessary—shift generationally where the perception of racial possibilities is concerned.  Moreover, polls that consistently rank African American personalities such as Will Smith, Beyonce, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and Oprah as the fan favorites in their respective entertainment fields and in some cases media industries unto themselves—irrespective of race—would also seem to suggest that this spirit of racial egalitarianism spans across all racial groups in some respects.  And while there have been no black heavyweight boxing champions for several years now, the marked increase of black public intellectuals on university campuses and black pundits offering fresh opinion and analytical insights from both the left and the right on the cable news networks has been unmistakable over the same period. Perhaps most telling of the changed racial attitude behind the embrace of Joshua Packwood is the political emergence of Barack Obama.  In the words of a recent New York Times editorial the fact that a man of African descent is poised to be elected President of the United States stands as the most powerful evidence of all that America has become “a different country” in so doing transcending its racist past.  These examples also seem to challenge, in some limited respects, deeply entrenched, dualistic habits of mind which have linked Africa (and by extension all members of the African diaspora, including African Americans) as the very essence of the narrow, parochial, folk wisdom, while establishing Europe and her progeny as the exclusive arbiters of universal and transcendent human truths since the age of Columbus.  In short, the implicit suggestion here is that America has transcended its racist past to become a truly colorblind society.

But has it really?

The gist of what I have to say in this concluding section can be summed up in four words: Reverend Jeremiah was right.  No, I am not talking here about the conspiratorial claims concerning the U.S. government’s deliberate efforts to wipe out the black population with AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s or with syphilis injections during the Tuskegee experiments earlier in the century.  Rather what I want to highlight is the gist of the various statements from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which appeared in a seemingly endless loop on cable news and You Tube beginning in early March, in which he insisted on an analysis that sought to unmask the existence and ongoing effects of white supremacy and U.S. imperialism.  This is not to say that Barack Obama was completely off base in his criticism of his then-pastor’s controversial statements.  But while Rev. Wright, like the older generation of cynics discussed above, may not have been as sensitive as he might have been to the changing nature of structural racism and white supremacy, he, unlike his pupil, was spot on in insisting on its continued existence.  One of the primary modes through which structural racism continues to operate is through masking over the forms of racial inequality that are embedded in the structures of American society.  Known as colorblindness or colorblind racism, this modern form of structural racism also seeks to appropriate the language of the Civil Rights and then seeks to redirect it back against the remnants of the movement itself. 

In both respects the idea and ideology of colorblindness is clearly evident in the corporate media’s presentation of Joshua Packwood’s story.  It is premised on a notion of progress based on the seeming democratization of racial images and symbols, while engaging in a conspiracy of silence around more substantive matters of racial justice or redress for fear of alienating key segments of the white electorate.  The media’s focus on the-Packwood-as-evidence-that-segregation-in-higher-education-is-dead story has, for example, come at the expense of sustained attention to the growing race (and class) disparities in graduation rates at the collegiate and secondary levels.  Similarly the corporate media’s—new black punditocracy included—eager embrace of the Obama campaign’s call for black fathers to be responsible parents (foregoing racial grievances and structural analyses of the causes behind black fathers’ absenteeism in so doing) in the cause of a symbolic victory in November leave crucial matters affecting the black community (i.e., protracted unemployment and poverty, unprecedented rates of prison incarceration, chronic rates of childhood obesity, and infant mortality, along with the fact that HIV-AIDS has become essentially a black disease) unaddressed. 

Given these facts, those of us concerned with the quality of life in African American communities across lines of generation and class must ask ourselves a question in light of the ongoing orgy of self-congratulations around success of Joshua Packwood and the Presidential candidacy of Barack Obama: What will it mean to practice brotherhood in a post-racial America increasingly obsessed with a class-oriented view of race?

Patrick Hill, PhD is a professor of American Culture at Bowling Green State University

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