Thursday, November 13, 2008

Race and the Election

Naturally many of the questions that have emerged after Barack Obama's historic victory in the 2008 presidential election have related to the question of race and racism. What does Obama's victory tell us about racism in the United States today? Since he won, is it not clear that we are free of the burdens or fears of racism in contemporary politics? Are we really in a post-race era in the United States? What role will race play in Obama's policies as president?

There is much to celebrate, and there can be no doubting that the United States has made tremendous strides since the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. As veteran civil rights activist Charles McDew has often said, those who say things have not gotten any better were not there when things were bad. But improvement from a nadir is hardly sufficient to proclaim that we are past race. There is less racism in the United States than there once was. That hardly means that we are past racism. We just need to take a more nuanced perspective on the role that race plays in the United States, and we especially need to be aware that the black-white dynamic is no longer the sole, or even necessarily most important, dynamic when it comes to racial politics in the United States. Take a few minutes to listen to some of the more obnoxious statements from the anti-immigrant right and you might understand why it is not only black Americans who have a right to be skeptical that we have reached perfectibility on race relations in this country.

While race did not decide this election, that hardly means that race was not a factor in Obama's margin of victory, or that it did not play a role in specific states and localities or among particular demographic groups (including among those who supported him). But there is still much to celebrate, even if the rosiest pronouncements are pretty silly.

Race and racism will continue to have a place in the discussion. From concrete policies -- disproportionate sentencing, say, or affirmative action -- to those incidents, such as children blithely chanting "assassinate Obama" on a school bus in Idaho, we will have regular reminders that when it comes to racism, apologies to William Faulkner, the past is not necessarily past.


Anonymous said...

As you know, I tend to agree with you on many issues including race and racism. In this, I think you are right; we have much to celebrate in last week's election, but it should not blind us to the work there is to do. That said, I think the more interesting question is: "How does the election alter the African-American community's perception of itself?"

-Donnie Baseball

MaryG said...

Here in Midland, the mailman came into my office and asked me if I wanted a "nigger" in the whitehouse. Kids in my daughter's junior high social studies class said they weren't coming to school if he won, others said they were going to wear black because they were in mourning. After all, Obama "kills babies". While we can do the best with our own, there is no accounting for the prejudice taught at home by the ignorant.