Is Postracial American Even Attainable?
The immediate response to Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election was shaped by declarations of a postracial America. Amidst the celebration of the first African American president was a subsidiary narrative of the backlash Obama would face for the next 8 years in office, putting into question how progressive America was regarding race and racism. Although it would be naive to understate how historic the 2008 election result was, it would be a glaring mistake to believe America is postracial because of that. Racism remains a discernible issue individually and institutionally despite the complacency with which the media and ordinary citizens proclaimed.
Postracial is defined as a “society [that] has transcended the racial divide” (Chiteji and Hamilton 2013:259). Since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the discussion and debate over the legitimacy of an America where race is insignificant in the societal operations of everyday life or governmental procedures has persisted. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave admissible arguments to those who believed America was on the cusp of postracialism, but like the aftermath of the 2008 election, there were incidences of racist transgressions. Many believe that Obama’s election is a reinforcement of color-blind racism within the soft racial frame that elevates “whiteness” at the expense of African Americans. During and after his campaign, racial tension intensified and more than 200 hate crimes were reported in the 2 weeks following Obama’s win according to the Christian Science Monitor (Jonsson 2008:1). Occurrences of subtle and overt racial discrepancies were rising while African Americans commemorated the historic result with hopes that their political, social, and economic position would change. Obama could be the man who finally understands the struggles that African Americans endure. Citizens presumably unhappy with the election burned crosses, hung nooses on trees, vandalized and destroyed property: most were racially motivated (Wingfield and Feagin 2013). The juxtaposition of two groups of people with antithetical reactions to the same event is crucial to the argument against a pronouncement of a postracial America.
Obama’s election seemed to strengthen the polarization of dichotomies whether it was between “whites” and “blacks” or republicans and democrats. Every success and failure was attributed to Obama’s mixed race. Government officials, media, and citizens took ownership of Obama’s success like his intellect, well-spoken manner, and charisma because those qualities are heavily associated with “whiteness.” Race dominated the conversation during his campaign despite his unwillingness to discuss racial matters, specifically programs that would alleviate racial inequality or his own experiences with prejudice. This contradicts semantically with the very definition of a postracial society wherein race has no signification in the social, political, economic, or cultural components of America. Obama’s decision to refrain from openly engaging in deep and thorough conversations about race was used in support of the postracial argument. It was said that the mere concept of an African American winning an American presidential election was enough to prove how inconsequential racism had become, but this reflects the soft, white social frame with which a color-blind society perceives race. It also ignores and diminishes the longstanding historical context where “race” resides. The necessity that was Obama’s decision to avoid racial discourse in his campaign to win white votes displays how prevalent soft racism is. It was understood that Obama “distanced himself from most leaders of the civil rights movement, from his reverend, from his church, and from anything or anyone who made him look ‘too black’ or ‘too political’” (Dietrich and Silva 2011:199). Obama carefully navigated a racialized campaign. He appealed to black voters who said he inspired and instilled hope that their aspirations are valid and that racial inequities could be mended. His strategy also reassured white voters that he wouldn’t be too “racial” in his administration or wouldn’t “make them feel guilty about the state of racial affairs in the country” (Silva and Dietrich 2011:199). Obama fed into the color-blind, soft racial frame that preserves subliminal and institutional racism.
The results of the election exemplified the rigidity of southern whites and white supremacists. According to CNN exit polls, Obama won 95% of the African American vote and an astonishing 67% of the Latino vote. However, he only won 22% of the white vote in Georgia and 10% of the white vote in Alabama, two deep southern, red states. The results reflect an actuality that is overlooked when racism is dismissed. Older, white voters are unwilling to change their perspective on racial issues, mostly because of their false belief that racism doesn’t exist in addition to the perpetuation of racist stereotypes and institutional racism more heavily engrained in the south. Thomas Pettigrew points out that “To hail the end of racism when these large population groups still strongly resist racial change is obviously premature” (2009:9). Exit polls from the 2008 election don’t demonstrate a progressive attitude toward racial healing, in fact the results reflect a polarizing election.
There were instances of extreme racism from white supremacist and Tea Party members following Obama’s election win. Paul Banahene Adejei discusses Obama’s election and aims to “contextualize concepts such as ‘race’, ‘racism’, and ‘post-raciality’ to the broader process of institutional and structural transformation in the era ushered in by Obama’s election” (Adejei 2011:133). Whites justified their contempt and sometimes violent behavior, like calling on a second civil war or delegitimizing Obama and his support, by arguing that whites feel “more likely than Blacks to be victims of discrimination” because “whites feel excluded by multiracial initiatives that intend to address racial barriers between Whites and Blacks/Browns” (Adejei 2011). Because of this, white supremacy groups aggressively encouraged whites to take arms and prepare for a civil war because an Obama presidency surely meant revocation of a country that was never theirs to begin with. Obama also inadvertently gave a strong push for the Tea Party after his election because of their strong and irrevocable abhorrence for the Affordable Health Care Act. But, “Under the disguises of challenging fiscal irresponsibility of the President Obama and Democrat Congress, the Tea Party Movement has become a platform for racists’ activities” like “anti-Semites, racists, bigots, and hard-core white nationalists whose agenda is to recruit and push Whites towards a more self-conscious and ideological White supremacy” (Adejei 2011). White supremacists used Obama to launch and gain support. A postracial America would never see such contrived and glaring forms of racism against a President and subordinate groups.
Many whites also contribute to the more subtle and soft racism. Some argue that more blacks should be like Obama now that he’s president and set expectations for blacks based on one African American’s success. In an area such as police brutality and criminal justice, 80% of whites believe race isn’t a factor in the way people are treated by cops but not even 50% of blacks would say the same (Romano and Samuels 2012). As far as police brutality, black males aged 15–34 make up only 2% of the U.S population but account for 15% of all deaths at the hands of police using deadly force and black people were twice as likely to be killed by law enforcement than whites in general (Swaine et al.). The intense and unapologetic denial of racism does not mean America is postracial, it means the opposite.
Since Obama’s election in 2008, the debate over whether racial issues have indeed improved because or in spite of Obama has been ongoing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of African Americans is still double that of whites. The income and wealth gap between whites and blacks has grown exponentially. The immediate response to Obama’s win in 2008 was that of relief and joy because he might be the healer African Americans have wanted since slavery began nearly 400 years ago. Most African Americans were optimistic about the potential of improvement in race relations and racial matters, but as each year passed in Obama’s 8-year presidency, blacks were less hopeful. There are still racial tensions permeating the political and social atmosphere. Police brutality, education reform, affirmative action, and health care discrepancies dominate the racial discussion, but it’s as if it is being shouted into a void. African American grievances are real and painful obstacles that cannot be fixed with nearly half of Americans in perpetual denial of racism. Many put into question how much Obama’s election and presidency improved race relations. His soft racial frame rhetoric was ineffectual in addressing racial discourse with tangible solutions to improve the lives of African Americans. Failure to aggressively engage in those discussions only sustained racial inequality and might have abated the problems that most integrally affect African Americans like mass incarceration and poverty. The sole election of President Obama is not enough to make racism disappear like some whites believe and even some African Americans hope. There is no collective effort to institutionally and individually end prejudice against Americans with a “different” skin color because there is still denial that prejudice takes place to begin with.
Although the outcome of the 2008 election will undoubtedly remain one of the most historic and important events in United States history, it was not enough to catapult America into a postracial condition. It can’t be understated how significant Obama’s win was for generations of African Americans who truly believed they would never see a black president, a black first lady, a black family in the white house. But the reality is that 8 years of a black presidency was not enough to rectify the injustice and insufferable damage that African Americans are still reaping. Racism has continued to evolve and endure over hundreds of years. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendment were monumental but Jim Crow and sundown towns persisted in a similar way that soft racial framing does today. Martin Luther King’s tremendous contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s are perhaps the most important legislative milestones in the 20th century. A declination of postracial America does not diminish or revoke those achievements, it recognizes the painful truth that despite remarkable executions of racial change, racism has not disappeared. Following Obama’s election, racial tensions escalated and hate crimes increased despite the promise of racial healing that many had hoped for. Obama’s win also provided white supremacists and the Tea Party an opportunity to benefit at the expense of minorities who continued to be marginalized and silenced. A postracial America would not bear these characteristics. Signaling the 2008 election as the demarcation for the start of postracial America is as faulty as declaring the 13th amendment ended discrimination and prejudice. There needs to be overwhelming structural modifications to the political, social, and economic conditions of the United States before there is discussion on postracial America, and President Barack Obama’s two terms are not it.
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