Obama, and the Birth of the (Above-)Racist

By Guest Contributor Catherine, originally posted at Hyphen Blog

The New York Times commemorated President Obama’s 100th day in office last week with some optimistic reportage of race relations in the United States. Citing a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, the article asserted that Obama is positively influencing public perception of race relations, stating that

Two-thirds of Americans now say race relations are generally good, and the percentage of blacks who say so has doubled since last July….

If only the public’s perception of “progress” were motivated by actual progress. Even a cursory examination of the state of race relations in the US will reveal that we are still a very racially divided nation, in some ways even more so than before Obama’s election. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, just released a report which found that the number of hate groups in the US has increased by more than 50 percent since 2000, and by 5 percent since last year. SPLC attributes the increase, in part, to growing anti-immigrant sentiment — a key point to remember, as Obama’s rise seems to have us thinking about race relations exclusively in black and white.

It wasn’t so very long ago that we were all too aware of the racism-infused anti-immigration sentiment that surrounded last year’s elections and talks of immigration reform. Back in those days, the Pew Hispanic Center found that half of Latinos believed their situations were worse than they had been a year before — and this year, the situation only seems to have worsened. Polls commissioned by New American Media now find that 82 percent of Latinas report that discrimination is a major problem for their families. And let’s not forget Committee of 100’s recent national survey, which found that Asian Americans still experience considerable discrimination.

And, contrary to apparent popular opinion and the cheery anecdotes featured by the New York Times, the situations of blacks haven’t improved markedly either, as Matthew Yglesias of ThinkProgress points out in his own analysis of the New York Times / CBS news poll results:

I’m surprised that as many as forty-four percent of blacks say that both races have equal opportunity. I think the evidence is unambiguously clear that they do not. African-American children have parents with lower levels of income and education. Their families, even when they have above-average incomes, tend to have less wealth than white families. And even controlling for parental income and educational attainment, black kids do worse in schools than white kids. Then beyond all that, there’s clear evidence of discrimination against job applicants with “black” names that tends to suggest a broader pattern of employment discrimination. There are inequities in the criminal justice system both in terms of more punishment being meted out to black offenders, and the police and the courts doing less to protect black victims.

Evidently, race relations haven’t improved quite as much as people want to believe. Clearly, in some situations, race relations have even deteriorated further. So what gives? Perhaps the (apparently unfounded) optimism uncovered by the poll has less to do with respondents’ personal observations of progress than it does with the overwhelming significance they placed on Obama’s election. Certainly the election of the first black/bi-racial US president is groundbreaking — and many, I’m sure, hoped that the very possibility of his election signified a momentous shift in the way Americans think about race. But the misguided belief that everything is automatically better now has unfortunate repercussions.

What begins as a benign belief that things have changed for the better can quickly turn into the obstinate conviction that racism is behind us and need not be addressed any longer. I can’t count how many times, since Obama’s election, I’ve been advised to take my race relations commentary down a notch because, in post-race America, we are too “above race” to necessitate continued critical discourse on the matter. My own sister called me a racist recently for addressing race issues on the Hyphen blog because, according to her, doing so is an affront to everything that Obama has built for us. Such sentiments are shockingly pervasive, I’ve found — so much so, that I’ve taken to calling people who harbor them “(above-)racists” — people who think that race is so far beneath them that they can’t help but actually be racist. They are best known for their belief that Obama’s election means either 1) racism no longer exists or 2) white racism no longer exists and/or 3) pointing out racial differences (whether casually or critically) is, itself racist. Not exactly what Obama had in mind, I think, when he said this:

…the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination — and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past — are real and must be addressed, not just with words, but with deeds…

Clearly even Obama doesn’t think racism is behind us, and the rest of us would do well to get that straight too. We need to recognize that one man’s rise — however monumental — doesn’t in and of itself change the structural inequalities that have long defined and limited the experiences of people of color. Believing otherwise reduces Obama to a token — a misleading indicator of illusory social change — rather than correctly recognizing him as an important step forward on a (still) long journey towards racial equality.

Image by flickr user tsevis, used under the Creative Commons License.

Hyphen is an Asian American magazine that covers arts, culture and politics with substance, style and sass.

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