America’s racial problems are persistent and vexing, and since the 1960s, the nation has used a powerful weapon to fix them: the ideas developed during the civil rights movement. Courts and government agencies enforce legal prohibitions against discrimination; private businesses and universities fashion their own diversity policies based on civil-rights principles. Even private individuals think about race relations in civil-rights terms: we aspire to the ideal of “colorblindness,” and condemn the evils of discrimination and bias.
For a long time this way of thinking made perfect sense. In the past, the biggest impediment to racial justice was overt discrimination, inspired by a widespread belief that blacks were inferior to whites. And in fighting this kind of outright prejudice, civil rights have been an astonishing success. Race discrimination in restaurants, theaters, and hotels was quickly and thoroughly eliminated by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Discrimination in employment – while still a problem – has been dramatically reduced and is widely and roundly condemned. Public figures who make overtly bigoted statements typically suffer widespread contempt and often lose their jobs. As a result, each successive generation is less bigoted than the preceding one. Polls suggest that racial animus today is at an all-time low, and Barack Obama’s election demonstrates that race is no longer the impediment it was in the recent past.