Does Barack Obama’s Victory Herald a Post-Racial America?

By Guest Columnist Dec 05, 2008

Does Barack Obama’s Victory Herald a Post-Racial America? By Andrew Grant-Thomas Deputy Director, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Ohio State University On the morning of Tuesday, January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will become the first "African American" president – indeed, the first non-white-male president – in the 232-year history of the United States. He will have won 65 million votes, more than any candidate ever has. As Senator John McCain graciously noted in his concession speech, given the deep and divisive history of race in the United States, that such an enormous coalition could coalesce around the candidacy of a black man ("with a funny name," no less) is cause for celebration. Some argue that Obama’s victory proves that race no longer plays a meaningful role in determining who gets what in this country. Indeed, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett recently declared an end to excuse-making by people of color: "Well, I’ll tell you one thing [Obama’s win] means…You don’t take any excuses anymore from anybody who says, ‘The deck is stacked, I can’t do anything, there’s so much in-built this and that.’" Coming from the man who suggested just two years ago that "aborting every black baby in this country" would be one sure way to reduce the crime rate, Bennett’s assertion is painfully ironic. More to the point, the conclusion he draws from Obama’s achievement – in effect, that we have become a "post-racial" society – is one we can expect to hear echoed repeatedly in the months ahead. This conclusion is deeply mistaken. Obama’s victory marks a milestone in US race relations – and possibly even a milestone in global race relations, as Europeans, among others, look to us with wonder. But the candidate’s win does not change the fact that black and Latino children are much more likely than white children to attend high-poverty schools with crumbling physical infrastructures, few qualified teachers, and few courses that can prepare them for the rigors of college. The win does not change the fact that a white man with a criminal record is three times more likely than a black man with a record to receive consideration for a job, and as likely to be considered as a black man without a record. It does not change the fact that minority home-seekers, many with good credit scores, are steered disproportionately to high-cost, sub-prime mortgages, or that their communities have been devastated by the current foreclosure crisis as a result. Observations like these, and the many similar ones that could be offered, are not "excuses." The struggle for equal opportunity has never been about creating reasons to fail. American history is full of people, of all racial and ethnic stripes, whose exceptional combination of talent, diligence and luck produced remarkable achievements, often in the face of high barriers to success. The point is that as caretakers in this "land of opportunity," we have much more work to do to fully realize that promise across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, geography, and religion. With Obama’s presidency already widely construed as evidence of our move to post-racialism, it is worth being specific about the flaws in that construction. Two particular flaws deserve mention here. First, the post-racialism claim builds on the reductive either-or dualism to which most Americans subscribe on race matters. So, for example, either President Bush’s tepid response to Hurricane Katrina revealed him to be a "racist," or his selection of several nonwhites to prominent cabinet posts prove that he is "not a racist." No matter how often someone like Tiger Woods, or Obama himself, stresses his diverse racial heritage, he is almost always identified as African American: in the United States, a person is either black or not-black. Either people of color face insuperable obstacles to prosperity or none at all. Either the President-Elect’s unprecedented achievement affirms what the Wall Street Journal calls the "myth of racism" or it is completely anomalous. When it comes to race, we are often blind to shades of gray. The structure of the electoral process itself reinforces this all-or-nothing impulse. In the first instance, a kind of interpretive violence is inevitable when the fears, hopes, aspirations and ambivalences of more than one hundred million people are reduced to a binary choice: McCain or Obama. In almost every state, the popular vote winner gets all the electoral votes, regardless of how many millions of people preferred his opponent. Given this backdrop, perhaps it is unsurprising that for months the election outcome was anticipated, at home and abroad, as a decisive referendum on how far this country’s racial sensibilities had evolved. In that regard, a handful of votes – the difference between winning and losing, hypothetically – would make all the difference in the judgment at which we arrived. In fact, the 2008 presidential election was a referendum on race in America only to this limited degree: most Americans agreed that race and racial anxieties did not trump the exigencies of war, peace, and economic crisis. Even in places like North Carolina and Virginia, where for decades the GOP has traded on white racial resentment for electoral gain – i.e., the "Southern Strategy" – many whites resisted the McCain campaign’s increasingly desperate race-baiting to vote for the candidate they believed had the insight, judgment, and temperament needed to tackle the critical issues facing the country. Other factors also shaped voters’ choices, including President Bush’s dismal popularity rating, a raft of scandals involving Republican lawmakers, Sarah Palin’s poor command of the issues, McCain’s age and "erratic" campaign performances, changing demographics, the Democrats’ fundraising edge, and more. Even among voters to whom Obama’s race gave pause, these and other considerations sometimes tipped the scale in his favor. One man’s laconic response to a canvasser’s query nicely captures the deep ambivalence with which he registered his vote: "Ma’am, we’re voting for the n***er." To suggest that this sort of very particular and highly conditioned choice has strong implications, one way or the other, for the extent to which "racism" shapes daily life across a wide range of contexts and interactions is a huge stretch. In addition to its either-or reductionism, the move from the Obama win to the post-racial claim highlights a second serious flaw in the way Americans conceptualize race and racism: the tendency to understand racism simply as a matter of interpersonal discrimination and explicit bias directed at non-whites. By this logic, if a candidate of color can draw enough support from white and other Americans to reach the pinnacle of US public life, then racism must be dead – or close enough. However, even if interpersonal racism were dead and buried, racial inequality would persist. Because Americans generally take individual people to be the main or only vehicles of racism, we often fail to appreciate the work done by racially inequitable institutions and structures. But, in fact, all complex societies feature institutional arrangements that help to create and distribute benefits, burdens, and interests in society, often quite independently of our conscious intentions. Consider the example of college admissions. Grades earned by high school students in Advanced Placement (AP) and other college-prep courses may be the single most influential factor in admissions decisions – often more important than overall GPA, class rank, or test scores, and far more important than "diversity" considerations. In a society where white students are much more likely than black and Latino students to attend high schools that offer such courses, and offer more of them, weighing AP performance heavily in admissions decisions is racially inequitable. Nevertheless, we don’t need to conjure up racist admissions officers to get this outcome. Three processes intersect to generate racially biased outcomes here. First, higher education admissions policies often make college access partly reliant on students’ prior access to AP classes in high school. Second, these admissions policies discount the fact that participation in the AP program is extremely uneven across high schools. For example, research on California in the late 1990s found that 15 percent of the state’s public schools offered no AP courses at all while 17 percent offered fifteen or more. Third, race enters the equation by way of historical legacies of racial injustice, complemented by contemporary forms of interpersonal, intra-institutional and structural bias, that place minority students disproportionately in the schools least likely to offer advanced courses. California schools offering many AP classes are most often located in affluent areas with few blacks and Latinos; the reverse was true of schools with few AP classes. Barack Obama’s win is hugely important for both substantive and symbolic reasons. We have reason to hope that his administration will chart a domestic and foreign policy course that diverges dramatically and productively from the one taken by the current administration. His example, and those of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, may well inspire more girls, women, and people of color to seek positions of public leadership. Suddenly, the prospect of our first Latino, Asian American or Native American president, or of a second black president, is plausible. The Obama phenomenon confirms that we have come far since the Shirley Chisolm and Jesse Jackson presidential runs in the 1970s and 1980s while holding out the possibility of further progressive movement in our racial culture. What Barack Obama’s victory does not signal is our transformation into a post-racial society. To claim that it does is to miss the fluid, contingent nature of racial attitudes and beliefs, the shades-of-gray character of human nature, and the varied makeup of racialized barriers to equal opportunity today. Equally important, in prematurely proclaiming our post-racial status we ignore the distance we have yet to travel to make this country truly a land of equal opportunity for all, regardless of racial identity. Barack Obama may prove willing and able to lead the way on the next stage of the journey, but he can’t get us there by himself.