Racism is this nation’s telltale heart beating ominously in the collective subconscious. From time to time we come to believe we have expiated and silenced it once and for all. But then it is back — changed, perhaps attenuated, but unmistakable.
Eleven years ago, we were congratulating ourselves on a historic milestone: the election of Barack Obama, the first African American U.S. president. Some dreamed — foolishly, it turned out — that we had finally entered a “post-racial” era. Instead, we find ourselves at a hyperracial moment of heightened friction, a time when six in 10 Americans believe race relations are “generally bad,” according to a Pew Research Center survey, and nearly two-thirds believe it is now more common for people to express racist views than when Obama left office.
More than half of us blame President Trump for making race relations worse, according to Pew. But Trump may be more of a symptom than a root cause. If he exacerbates and exploits jagged divisions for political gain, he is able to do so because those divisions were already there.
It is depressingly easy to quantify the stubborn disparities that linger from our centuries of racism. The median black family earns just 62 percent of what the median white family earns, according to the Census Bureau, and has little more than one-tenth the accumulated net worth — gaps that have barely narrowed since the 1970s. Latinos fare, on average, just slightly better.
Much harder to catalogue is how Americans feel on a personal level. Racism hurts. A growing body of research shows it negatively affects the mental and physical health of its victims. Like any burden, it wears the bearer down. Sometimes it makes you feel like lashing out. Sometimes it makes you feel as if you are drowning.
In what surely is not a coincidence, racism is rising along with diversity. The country’s 10 biggest cities and two biggest states are already majority-minority, meaning non-Hispanic whites no longer constitute more than half the population. The nation as a whole will reach that tipping point around 2045. Hispanics are now such a huge minority that one could argue the nation is already functionally bilingual. Perhaps the sense that demography equals destiny has something, or maybe everything, to do with the fact that about half of white Americans, according to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem in the United States as discrimination against minorities.
This is how the war against racism goes: progress, setback, optimism, despair — a cycle that frustratingly repeats and yet somehow inches us forward. Racism may be worse than in the recent past, but the individual and collective punishment it metes out is a shadow of what black Americans suffered a half-century ago. We have no choice but to believe that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. We have somehow taken a detour, however, and must find our way back to the true path.
This issue is devoted to photography that documents this moment — not just our external struggle with racism, but the internal struggles as well. Some of the images are beautiful and unsettling. Some are jarring. If some make us uncomfortable, that is progress. An easy conversation about racism is not a real conversation at all.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist focusing on politics and culture.