Obama and Myths of Racial Democracy

by Guest Contributor Marisol LeBron, originally published at NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America)

Political pundits have celebrated president-elect Barack Obama’s sweeping and historic victory as evidence that the United States has taken an initial step toward a “post-racial” or “colorblind” society.

In a recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Shelby Steele provocatively asked, “Doesn’t a black in the Oval Office put the lie to both black inferiority and white racism? Doesn’t it imply a ‘post-racial’ America?” Analysts on both sides of the political spectrum have answered yes. Phillip Morris of the Cleveland Plains Dealer declared, “America has completed its evolution into a racial meritocracy.” While Jonathan Kay of Canada’s National Post wrote, “Electing a black president won’t instantly cure ‘the ugly racial wound left by America’s history’ (as The Economist put it in its Obama endorsement). But it will at least prove that America has finally become a fundamentally post-racial society—a place where tribal loyalties are based on ideology, not skin color.” Meanwhile, another conservative columnist, Laura Hollis of Townhall.com, flatly claimed, “Racism is dead.”

Most interesting, and perhaps troubling, is the way Latin America is being used by observers to symbolize what a “post-racial” future will look like for the United States. In a syndicated report for McClatchy Newspapers, Tyler Bridges remarked, “This year’s election presents intriguing story lines for Latin Americans. Race is a less important issue here than it is the United States, but many dark-skinned Latin Americans are quietly cheering for Obama.”

U.S. commentators most often point to the concept of mestizaje as an example of Latin America’s seamless racial integration. Mestizaje, or racial mixing, is often seen as diametrically different to historical U.S. legal sanctions against miscegenation—the so-called “one-drop” rule. Mestizaje is cited as a prime example of how Latin Americans have been able to move beyond race. Although mestizaje has different historical roots and trajectories within different Latin American countries, there has been a rhetorical emphasis across the board on a kind harmonious racial exceptionalism at work in Latin America.

The everyday practices and lived experiences of many Latin Americans, however, paint a different picture. Writing for NACLA, Marisol de la Cadena notes, “One of the most puzzling, disconcerting phenomena that the non-native visitor confronts while traveling in Latin America is the relative ease with which pervasive and very visible discriminatory practices coexist with the denial of racism.”

It was that sense of disconcerting confusion that bloggers and journalists felt when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez repeatedly referred to Obama not by his name, but as simply “el negro,” during a press conference in March. One part from Chávez’s speech was particularly telling. Roughly translated, he told reporters, “For a Black man to become President of the United States is no small thing… We are not asking him to be a revolutionary or a socialist. No, [we ask] only that this Black man who is about to become President of the United States realize the circumstances that this world is living in. From right here and right now we who are Indian, Black, Caribbean and South American are sending positive energy to el hombre negro.”

Although Chávez was clearly expressing excitement—even solidarity—over the prospect of an African-American holding the highest position in U.S. government, the fact that Obama remained basically nameless and was only referred to by his race throughout the press conference is a telling example of the seemingly innocuous discriminatory practices and racism that permeate everyday life in Latin America.

Chávez’s statements were so shocking to many people precisely because he was so open about referring to Obama only in terms of his race in an international and public setting, disrupting the idea of Latin America as a kind of “post-racial” utopia. Some might dismiss Chávez’s comment as a linguistic misfire attributable to Latin America’s unique racial lexicon. But such a dismissal is a missed opportunity to poke holes in the underlying myth of racial democracy that is clearly at work.

As one blogger quipped, “We know some might find it tempting to dismiss Chávez’s statements as a product of cultural difference in talking about race, but this is a man who is in charge of a nation – not your uncle Tito watching Sabado Gigante.” It was not the first time a Latin American national leader has made offensive remarks about race on the world stage. Recall President Vicente Fox’s statement about Mexicans doing jobs in the United States that “even blacks don’t want.” Or when Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso publicly claimed to have some African ancestry by explaining he had “one foot in the kitchen.” Moments like these lift the thin veil of racial democracy in Latin America and exposes the long road ahead on issues of race and social justice in the region.

The promotion of mestizaje and racial democracy in Latin America has often existed alongside, and as part of, the suppression of populations of African and indigenous descent. National identities based on mestizaje served the dual purpose of “uniting” fractious nations under one banner while at the same time promoting the mass marginalization of racial and ethnic groups by denying their discrimination.

Several scholars have helped dispel the myth of racial democracy in Latin America by documenting what is often referred to as blanqueamiento (whitening), or mejorando la raza (improving the race). In one example, blanqueamiento is actively sought out by marrying a lighter-skinned person, thereby producing lighter, racially mixed offspring. Sociologist Ginetta E. B. Candelario has traced the many ways blanqueamiento is promoted in Dominican society. As evidence, she points to the range of skin creams and hair products marketed to produce a whiter-looking phenotype among Dominican women.

Any observer scratching the least bit below the surface would realize Latin America is far from a racial democracy. Statistical indicators consistently show indigenous and African populations in Latin American countries at the very bottom of the social and economic ladder. Proposing Latin America as model for U.S. racial harmony is absurd, and doing so negates the current climate of colorblind racism still operating in the United States.

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes about how rhetoric of a color-blind society functions to perpetuate racial inequality without appearing or sounding deliberately racist. Color-blind racism, or the idea that race is no longer a significant issue deserving of our efforts or attention, works to justify the continued marginalization and disenfranchisement of people of color in the United States.

As Moya Bailey, an activist academic, points out in a recent blog post: “Structural racism depends on the exceptions (Obama, Oprah, etc.) to hide the rule that is inequity…. So I pledge to stay vigilant, critical and skeptical. I pledge also to be active, visible, and hopeful for the world I wish to see. It will take more than one man’s rise to power to undo centuries old structural oppressions built along the axes of race, gender, sexuality, ability and age. The struggle continues.”

Racial hierarchies are still at work in the United States and Latin America, and this injustice will continue until these hierarchies are actively deconstructed.