The Myth of a Post-Racial Society

There's no question that we've come along way in the way we perceive race. So far, in fact, that we elected a black man to the highest office in the country last November—something that would have been unthinkable just thirty years earlier. Perhaps nothing captures the distance we've come better than the indelible image of Jesse Jackson—himself once a candidate for the Presidency—shedding a tear during Barack Obama's acceptance speech.

But it is too early to talk of having achieved a post-racial society—if such a thing is even possible. Consider the vast disparities still remaining—to take just one example—between the conditions of blacks and whites in America. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median black worker earns just over $600/week, about 80% of what the median white worker makes. Black men are incarcerated at 6.6 times the rate of white men, with almost one in twenty black men in prison. And as this interactive graph shows, unemployment rates are nearly twice as high for blacks as for whites in essentially every demographic category. Almost half of all young black men without a high school education are out of work nationally.


Nor is it true that we as a nation have suddenly become colorblind. While his race didn't stop Barack Obama from getting elected, it certainly was a factor in the presidential campaign. In some key areas the vote split dramatically along racial lines—as Daniel Schorr points out, Obama won 78 percent of the black vote in South Carolina, but only 24 percent of the white vote. The pervasive rumors that Obama had been born in Kenya and was a Muslim would never gained much traction if the white mainstream didn't perceive him as somehow "other." Conversely, while it's hard to believe being black was on balance an advantage for Obama, his race—and the fact that he would be the first black to win the presidency—was undoubtedly part of his appeal. As Shelby Steele argues, by invoking the ideal of a post-racial society—by calling on us to judge him by the content of his character rather than the color of skin—Obama was able to tap into "the longing on the part of whites to escape the stigma of racism."

Rather than showing that we have finally gotten beyond race, Obama's election makes it clear that we are still grappling with its role in our society. Indeed, it's precisely because race is still an issue that his election was such an important historic milestone. So we shouldn't take it as license to turn a blind eye to the racial issues in our society. In their fascinating new book, Nurtureshock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue that our reluctance to talk about race only allows the prejudices our kids naturally develop to go unchallenged. Likewise, as adults we shouldn't ignore the very real disparities that remain in the way we see and treat different races. We shouldn't use Obama, as Larry Wilmore joked on The Daily Show, as "that convenient black friend every white person has to prove they're not racist." While we might like to believe that racial distinctions no longer really matter, pretending we don't see them won't make them go away.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.