Features » August 24, 2009
The ‘Post-Racial’ President
Barack Obama navigates a world where color still matters.
‘I’ve noticed that when I talk about personal responsibility in the African-American community, that gets highlighted. But where I talked about government’s responsibility, that somehow doesn’t make news.’
With the nation’s first black president in the White House, some pundits have started employing the narrative of a “post-racial” America to frame events. In this view, Barack Obama’s election has leveled the playing field and obviated the struggle for racial equality. In many ways Obama has played along, scrupulously avoiding comment on racial matters since he began his presidential campaign.
Yet racism persists in the Obama-era, the supposedly post-racial world. According to culture critic and author Henry Giroux, this racism is different from the historical “crude racism with its biological referents and pseudo-scientific legitimations.” Instead, he writes, this new breed of racism “cynically recodes itself within the vocabulary of the civil rights movement, invoking the language of Martin Luther King Jr., to argue that individuals should be judged by the ‘content of their character’ and not by the color of their skin.”
Obama was atypically unequivocal in July when he criticized the Cambridge, Mass., police for “acting stupidly” in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard University. He also raised a few eyebrows by linking the Gates arrest to the historical problem of racial profiling.
In the Gates incident, the esteemed Harvard professor was mistaken for a burglar at his own home and later arrested for “disorderly conduct” for reportedly berating Sgt. James Crowley, the officer called to investigate.
Details were still sketchy at the time of Obama’s comments, and his unexpected response to the question sparked a torrent of criticism from right-wingers who were predictably eager to express their law-and-order bona fides. It also gave them fuel to inflame the kind of racial biases that tend to improve their electoral fortunes. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” lives on.
Rush Limbaugh said Obama’s comments were a case of “a black president trying to destroy a white policeman.” Fox News’ Glenn Beck accused the president of being racist, saying Obama’s words revealed a “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”
The president also angered some supporters, who thought his comments were inappropriate and distracting. “I thought I was in the Twilight Zone when I heard him make those comments at the press conference,” says Boyce Watkins, a professor of finance at Syracuse University and a media pundit. “I thought his remarks were irresponsible.”
Watkins objected because he thought Gates was an inappropriate symbol for racial profiling. A well-respected Harvard professor gets the press, he said, “while millions of poor black men who get no coverage are being victimized by the criminal justice system.”
Many wondered why a president whose campaign discipline was legendary would make such a startling strategic mistake.
The answer likely lies in Obama’s attempts to rectify what he considers an unbalanced depiction of his position on racial issues. He seems frustrated by criticism of his posture of racial neutrality, and hinted as much when he complained to the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson about coverage of his July 16 NAACP speech. “I’ve noticed that when I talk about personal responsibility in the African-American community, that gets highlighted,” he said. “But then the whole other half of the speech, where I talked about government’s responsibility … that somehow doesn’t make news.”
Obama was speaking of the media’s predilection for talking about race in post-racial terms, though it’s a tendency he’s guilty of too. During his campaign, most of his advisors urged him to avoid the issue as too risky. Except for his excellent speech in Philadelphia–in which he contextualized the kind of black anger expressed by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, even while condemning it–his campaign followed that advice and remained was race-averse.
He also fed the post-racial narrative during his occasional addresses to black audiences, in which he stressed the role of personal responsibility. In fact, he has faced significant criticism for what many have referred to as condescending, “up by your bootstraps” lectures to the African-American community. Many black activists were witheringly critical of his decision to boycott the UN World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Geneva last April.
And on July 11, he angered many Pan-African activists and African-oriented academics with what they called a condescending speech delivered in Ghana. In that speech, Obama essentially lectured Africans to stop using a history of colonialism and imperialism as excuses for bad governance and economic failure today. Like the NAACP speech later that month, it was portrayed in the media as a “bootstrap” sermon, chiding Africans for their bad behavior.
So when the question about Gates closed out his July 22 press conference, the president saw an opportunity to mitigate some of those criticisms. He later backtracked, noting that his comments were not well “calibrated.” (Charges against Gates were dropped, but Crowley refused to apologize or admit wrongdoing.) But Obama acknowledged, “Race is still a troubling aspect of our society.”
Troubling indeed. Race relations in the United States are complex, nuanced and multi-layered. Just when you think you have a handle on an issue, the handle falls off. Our nation was bequeathed this enduring problem by the oxymoron at our inception: a slave-holding nation dedicated to human equality.
With an African-American leading a nation still wounded by what Condoleezza Rice called our founding “birth defect,” the complexity and intensity of race in America is downright stifling. Obama’s presidential campaign exemplified those complexities in many ways: In addition to white support, he also garnered overwhelming black support by adroitly downplaying his racial identity. Many in the African-American community did not think Obama was “black enough” until he won the white vote in the Iowa primary election.
Although his campaign was race-averse, his “blackness” added to his allure as a candidate of change. And although his “white” mother and grandparents raised him and he was immersed in “white” society, Obama is classified as black solely because he shares the DNA of his Kenyan father. Our confusion about race has become a routine state of affairs, and it often clouds our social vision.
To serve and protect (white people)
For example, the troubled record of racial profiling Obama mentioned has roots in the slave patrols that evolved into America’s first organized police forces. According to the views of several historians compiled in the 1991 book Out of Order: Policing Black People, policing in this country has routinely had the dual purpose of maintaining social order while enforcing racial hierarchy.
Examples of hostilities between police and black Americans echo throughout our country’s history. Police brutality was the precipitating factor in the racial disorders of Harlem, New York, in 1935 and 1943, most of the “long hot summer riots” of the ’60s, and the Miami riots of the ’80s. Charges of police abuse also triggered the Rodney King riots that inflamed South Central Los Angeles in 1992, a 1996 explosion in St. Petersburg, Fla., and, most recently, two days of violence in Benton Harbor, Mich., in 2003.
What’s more, virtually every black activist organization has had major confrontations with American law enforcement. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed in 1966 specifically to challenge police brutality.
Much of this history is unknown to most Americans. Even today, there is perhaps nothing as likely to provoke racially specific opinions as a dispute between police and black men. Several white police officers were videotaped in 1991 viciously pummeling an unarmed Rodney King, yet an all-white jury found them innocent.
The primary strategy to alter this strained relationship has been for cities to hire more black cops. As W. Marvin Dulaney points out in his book Black Police in America, there were few black officers anywhere from the period of Reconstruction to the 1940s, and these few were “crime fighters” who served as the tough arm of white control over poor black communities.
The numbers of African-American police increased slowly during the ’50s and ’60s. The growth of black activist groups in the late ’60s and ’70s sparked demands for more political and police representation. Some of those demands have borne fruit, but they still were strongly resisted.
In 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act extended the 1964 Civil Rights Act to state and local governments and empowered the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to fight discrimination in employment in municipal police and fire departments. Despite these spurs to desegregation, studies have found only modest improvement in desegregating these historically white departments. Relations between police departments and the African-American community have remained contentious as black incarceration rates have ballooned. It’s difficult to gauge changes in the rate of racial profiling by police, as data was not collected on stops and searches until 1999, and about half of jurisdictions still don’t collect racial data, according to the Justice Department.
Enter Sonia Sotomayor
Attempts to change this historical pattern lay behind the controversy over newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and her support for the city of New Haven, Conn., in its decision to reject a promotions test that no blacks had passed. The municipality feared an EEOC suit would take it to task for the racially disparate results of its test. Like police departments across the country, municipal fire departments also are famously resistant to black employment and advancement.
Conservatives combined their dislike for affirmative action with their wariness of Sotomayor’s ideological pedigree to launch racist jeremiads about the Latina judge’s character and fitness for duty during the confirmation hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Even before the hearings began, some GOP stalwarts branded her as a racist for comments she made in a speech about hoping that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Ignoring the broader context of Sotomayor’s words, discernable to any careful reader, many Republicans attempted to tarnish her brand of ethnic advocacy as reverse racism. This line revealed a new tactic of the right to broadly accuse those struggling against racial bias as racist. The Supreme Court’s narrow 5-4 decision in Ricci v. DeStefano, concluding the city did violate the rights of white firefighters by rejecting the promotions test, suggests that affirmative action efforts may be facing hard times.
One might call this a post-racial racism. By whatever name, it has national resonance because many Americans are convinced that Obama’s election proves the United States has moved beyond the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow apartheid. Those who insist the struggle for racial equality must continue are derided as racists hewing to an outmoded paradigm.
The president flagged this false dichotomy in his complaint to the Washington Post, but he also felt its power after venturing into the Gates affair. Obama was badly burned, and polls suggest his popularity was hurt by the flap. The incident is likely to reinforce his initial decision to keep race at bay.
The boisterous national response to his mild rebuke of the Cambridge police reveals demagogic politicians can easily tap America’s cultural reservoir of racial biases. Faced with a shrinking demographic base and diverging cultural trends, many Republicans have concluded that a return to the politics of white resentment may be the party’s best shot at viability.
A black president with a progressive agenda also provides the right wing with a potent symbol of opposition. Social rifts in the United States are always exacerbated by economic uncertainty, and recession breeds uncertainty.
Last April, the Department of Homeland Security warned that “the economic downturn and the election of the first African-American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment.” Just a hint of racial favoritism from Obama probably would light a fuse of potent white resentment.
At the same time, black Americans are in a deep depression and may require exactly the kind of race specific, compensatory policies that are falling out of favor and likely to anger many other groups. Those pushing for black equality see, for example, that black American inmates comprise one tenth of all the world’s prisoners and they refuse to accept that tragic reality.
This is Obama’s dilemma; he must walk a narrow tightrope slick with cultural biases. As America’s first black president, he must downplay black Americans’ specific needs or he’ll lose his political balance.
Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to In These Times magazine, or make a tax-deductible donation to fund this reporting.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of "The Salim Muwakkil" show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.