Does Obama’s candidacy demonstrate that the U.S. has entered a post-racist era? Last summer as Obama’s primary victory began to look certain, commentators as diverse as CNN’s John Blake and liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asserted that the U.S. was no longer bothered by racism.
The Democratic National Convention was blanketed with lapel pins suggesting Obama had fulfilled Martin Luther King’s dream of a society of racial equality, “Making the Dream a Reality” and “Legacy of Hope” they boasted with images of the two men side by side.
The claims in the current presidential electoral contest that the U.S. is now a “post-racial” society are not new claims. Ever since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 some in the U.S. have claimed that racism was now an artifact of the past, presuming that public declarations and legal prohibitions can abolish widespread social practices.
In 1995 world scientists even declared in a UNESCO report that there is no such thing as race that has any scientific meaning or use, yet racism is widely practiced throughout the world. But how does racism persist as a problem in U.S. society?
Social historians recognize the present-day effects of explicitly racist past policies across multiple social sectors and racial groups. For example, the racist exclusions of blacks from access to home ownership beginning with the 1937 National Housing Act and continuing to present-day redlining in loan policies have resulted in a more than 10:1 disparity between white and black family net worth. Despite the passage of the so-called fair-housing act of 1968, the systematic collection of empirical data shows that “the median family net worth of individuals in the United States who are socially designated as white is $43,279, while the median family net worth of individuals who are socially designated as “black” is $4,169.” (Duster, 120) Since home ownership is a major way for families to gain family assets, ongoing housing and loan discrimination in past policies and present practices together produce racist social effects.
Those who claim that segregation in the U.S. ended with the Civil Rights Act may be dismayed to find continuing racism in segregation across multiple social sectors still ranges from housing to places of worship to employment to education.(Massey and Denton) Many of us are so accustomed to segregation in private-sector workplaces that we fail to recognize it when we see it in Latino-only occupations (often cleaning, groundskeeping, and food services) and Whites-only sectors (e.g., senior administrators). While wide-spread segregation is well-known to social scientists, these daily practices do not often make it into public dialogue about U.S. race relations.
The workplace is still characterized by racist practices as well. A recent study of racism in hiring practices for professional and managerial jobs found that you were 50 percent more likely to receive a call back to responses to help-wanted ads if you had a more white-sounding name, while if you name was Latisha or Tyrone you were less likely to get a call back.(Ehrenreich) Black per capita income in the United States is still only 57 percent of white per capita income, and has increased only 3 percent since 1967. Racist salary and wage disparities for equal work are well-known among social scientists, yet widespread claims that the U.S. has entered a post-racial period continue among media pundits and political leaders.
Despite legal guarantees of equal protection under the law in the 14th amendment and the 1866 and 1967 Civil Rights Acts, wide racial disparities in arrests, incarcerations, and sentencing at present are unfortunately readily verifiable. De facto school segregation is widespread in the U.S. despite being outlawed in 1964, and college graduate rates of African Americans remains at only 61 percent of white graduation rates.
Racism is not a problem perpetrated by whites on blacks alone, of course. The xenophobic treatment of non-citizens has historically provided a rationale and legal precedent for racist policies and beliefs that affect racial minorities in the United States. (Cole 100) Racist practices and conceptions drive anti-immigration hysteria that has led to anti-immigrant policies and the demonization, impoverishment, incarceration, and death of many immigrants from Central and South American and other areas. Anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments continue to pervade U.S. society, even as the latter have been further inflamed by the War on Terror. Ongoing racism against Native Americans Indigenous populations is readily documented through both continuing stereotyping in popular culture, the impoverishment of urban and reservation communities, and the increasing extinction of North American Native languages. (Manatowa-Bailey) By one measure, only when Native Americans are flourishing in socio-economic and cultural terms and have returned to pre-colonization population levels can we say that the U.S. is free of its racist legacy of land theft and cultural violence.
Gauging how effective anti-racism has been in the United States is possible through international perspectives on U.S. race relations, as in the reports on racism by U.N. special rapporteurs on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. One such rapporteur, Doudou Diéne, visited the United States from May 18 to June 6 during the current presidential campaign. Unfortunately his report will not be available until Spring, 2009, shortly after the new president has been inaugurated, but we may get an idea of how it will read from a report on a 1994 report on U.S. race relations. That report concluded that “racism and racial discrimination persist in American society” due to structural obstacles, individual resistance, vested interests, and other power struggles and social inertia.
Racism impacts the 2008 presidential campaign in multiple ways. The most direct is the disenfranchisement of voters who are persons of color through voter identification and felony disenfranchisement laws. Another way that racism impacts the election is more subtle, through what’s come to be widely known as the “Bradley effect,” after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Bradley was an African-American who in 1982 was leading nearly every poll in the California governor’s race but lost to his white opponent. The widely through not universally accepted theory is that some white voters tell pollsters they support a black candidate out of political correctness but won’t vote for one. In North Carolina in 1990, African-American candidate Harvey Gantt led Republican Jesse Helms in the polls, but Helms won soundly. More recently, a 2006 proposal before voters in Michigan to ban affirmative action looked too close to call, according to polls, but it passed with 58 percent support. Democratic pollster Tom Eldon notes, “But what we have been told in recent polls is that people are less apprehensive about electing an African-American than electing a woman or electing a man in his 70s.” So we shall see how it all plays out on November 4.
Racism also impacts this and other U.S. elections by encouraging candidates of color to run campaigns that avoid race as a topic for discussion. As an economic affairs columnist, Krugman of the New York Times is well aware of ongoing economic inequalities in the U.S. and globally, but he observes that Obama initially run a campaign that carefully avoided explicit references to race. Paul Harris, a political affairs correspondent based in the United Kingdom, has pointed out that Obama’s campaign follows the successful campaign strategies of other African American candidates for U.S. elected office who reject the campaign tactics of civil rights era politicians like Jesse Jackson and instead avoid the topic of race. Race-blind campaigns have won office for Cory Booker, a hugely popular Newark mayor and Deval Patrick, the first black governor of heavily white Massachusetts, for Adrian Fenty, at just 37 the young black mayor of Washington DC, and Atlanta’s black mayor, Shirley Franklin, who is hugely popular with the powerful white business community. This trend suggests we need to distinguish between a new generation of black electoral candidates who avoid race in their campaigns, and the economic and social realities of racist structures, practices, and belief that remain deeply embedded in the United States.
In sum, those who claim that Obama’s Democratic Party nomination means the U.S. is now a post-racial society presume that one individual event can erase the structural inequalities deeply embedded in U.S. society. Certainly the nomination breaks new ground for anti-racism in national politics, as more white (and Latino and Asian American) voters confront the question of whether they are ready to vote for an African American to occupy the nation’s most powerful electoral office. But it also suggests that the political correctness backlash by the far right and other factors have made it difficult and politically dangerous for candidates of color to openly discuss ongoing racism in the U.S. today. This suggests that racism has become a taboo topic in the public sphere in the United States, not that racism has ended and an era of racial equality has begun. The struggle for racial equality is a long one. Its goal can only be achieved if antiracists continue work for racial justice in the many places where racism is still found in the United States, despite taboos that attempt to silence those who would speak out and name racist structures and work to transform them. Individuals do not change structural inequalities, movements do.
Massey, Douglas and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Harvard University Press, 1993.
Duster, Tory, “The ‘Morphing’ Properties of Whiteness,” The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, ed. Birgit Rasmussen, et al., Duke University Press, 2001, 113-38.
“An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich,” Class Matters, Betsy Leondar-Wright, New Society Publishers, 2005, 107-111.
Jacob Manatowa-Bailey, “On the Brink,” Cultural Survival Quarterly, 31.2 (July, 2007).
Adam C. Smith, “Black Issue Hangs Over Presidential Polls,” St. Petersberg Times, 9-15-08 (accessed 9-17-08)