Nearly fifty years ago, the American Academy organized a conference and two issues of its journal Daedalus on the topic of “The Negro American.” The project engaged top intellectuals and policy-makers around the conflicts and limitations of mid-1960s liberalism in dealing with race. Specifically they grappled with the persistent question of how to integrate a forced-worker population that had been needed but that was socially undesirable once its original purpose no longer existed. Today racism has been discredited as an idea and legally sanctioned segregation belongs to the past, yet the question the conference participants explored - in essence, how to make the unwanted wanted - still remains. Recent political developments and anticipated demographic shifts, however, have recast the terms of the debate. Gerald Early, guest editor for the present volume, uses Barack Obama's election to the presidency as a pretext for returning to the central question of “The Negro American” project and, in turn, asking how white liberalism will fare in the context of a growing minority population in the United States. Placing his observations alongside those made by John Hope Franklin in 1965, Early positions his essay, and this issue overall, as a meditation on how far we have come in America to reach “the age of Obama” and at the same time how far we have to go before we can overcome “the two worlds of race.”
Nearly all of today's confident dismissals of the notion of a “post-racial” America address the simple question, “Are we beyond racism or not?” But most of the writers who have used the terms post-racial or post-ethnic sympathetically have explored other questions: What is the significance of the blurring of ethnoracial lines through cross-group marriage and reproduction? How should we interpret the relatively greater ability of immigrant blacks as compared to standard “African Americans” to overcome racist barriers? What do we make of increasing evidence that economic and educational conditions prior to immigration are more powerful determinants than “race” in affecting the destiny of population groups that have immigrated to the United States in recent decades? Rather than calling constant attention to the undoubted reality of racism, this essay asks scholars and anti-racist intellectuals more generally to think beyond “the problem of the color line” in order to focus on “the problem of solidarity.” The essay argues that the most easily answered questions are not those that most demand our attention.