This December 2 post by Lawrence Bobo on the blog The Root makes an excellent point, one I think is important to acknowledge in the wake of Obama’s historic win. Bobo discusses the rise of a discourse, particularly since Obama’s election, which takes Obama’s candidacy and win as evidence that America is now a “post-racial” society. However, he argues that the growing use of the phrase “post-racial America” should worry us all. Bobo takes as evidence for his argument a recent study jointly conducted by the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan which surveyed a large, representative sampling of households in Chicago and Detroit to gather information about neighborhood segregation and attitudes about race. The study concluded that the racial makeup of a community, all other things being equal, had a strong impact on the perceived positive or negative attributes of that community. White participants in particular were likely to perceive neighborhoods with greater black presence more negatively than those more heavily populated by whites. Bobo argues that this study and many others illustrate the fact that racism in this country is still very much a “structural and cultural problem”.
I’ve thought about this topic a lot as the election process unfolded and read several other interesting articles dealing with this idea. One such article which argues a similar point was written by Aman Gill and appeared in The Indypendent a few weeks before the election. Gill employs a metaphor for America’s race relations that I think is incredibly useful. He writes that:
Racism in America may not look like all-white police forces, dogs on black men or sound like speeches by white supremacist politicians. It’s more like a termite- infested house — political correctness and black representation in business, media and politics compose a nice-looking picture on the outside. But gashes in the façade expose structural disparities as racially aligned as ever.
I agree with both of these articles in that I think racism still permeates our society, as does sexism, but that they’ve gone underground, so to speak. Racism and sexism have become much less acceptable than they were even a few decades ago, and there have surely been some real, substantive strides. But to claim that America now is post-racial seems like a get out of jail free card, a way for people to justify greater complacency going forward and to avoid dealing with issues which are still very difficult for our society to face. The irony is that Obama’s campaign and Presidential win, the very things used to justify the “post-racial” assertion, provide many examples of the fact that this is not the case (just as Hillary Clinton’s campaign provided evidence of the level of sexism that still exists in our society). I do understand the celebratory impulse that I think spurs a lot of these sweeping assertions, and my point is not to downplay the historic, triumphant nature of Obama’s win. In fact, I think both Obama’s and Clinton’s campaigns represented great strides for race and gender equality in this country precisely because they put a spotlight on inequalities that have in the past been easier to ignore or deny. No one could ignore the man who screamed at Senator Clinton to iron his shirts or Chris Matthews repeatedly calling her an “uppity woman” and no one could deny the white supremacists who plotted to assassinate Obama or the Fox anchor who referred to Michelle Obama as Barack’s “baby mama” or the college student from Pittsburgh who falsely claimed that a big black man had raped her and carved a “B” into her face, for Barack. Those things didn’t magically cease the moment Obama was elected. I’m fairly sure that the man who told my mother the day before the election, while she was phone banking for Obama, that he wasn’t going to vote for “no nigger” still felt that way the day after the election.
For me, denying the problem is not the solution. I do believe that Obama will change the face of race relations in America simply by being the face of America. I believe that, in the way that one of the biggest determinative factors to changing people’s minds about gays and lesbians in recent years has been the greater visibility of gays and lesbians and the fact that more and more people know an openly gay person, simply by being a public figure, and a man who promises to lead with grace, intelligence, and an approachable charm, Obama will disprove many prejudices that still exist in some people’s minds. But prematurely labeling our society as post-racial simply allows us to be complacent. We have proven that America is “ready” for a black President (or at least a light-skinned black President who, as Gill’s article points out studiously avoids controversial issues of race). Now, it remains for us to move forward with a vigilant awareness that we do not live in a race-neutral or post-racial society (whatever that would even mean) and that we still have much work ahead of us in the process of achieving greater racial equality and understanding. It is only by acknowledging this that we will be able to continue to have an honest dialogue about race and to continue the work that needs to be done.