Obama: a year in black & white. Who says race doesn't matter?

The election of Barack Obama was meant to signal the birth of a ‘post-racial’ America; the moment when the long struggle for equality would finally be over. But as Baratunde Thurston argues, colour has become the defining issue of his presidency

Wednesday 20 January 2010 01:00

In the beginning there was Shelby Steele, who in December 2007 had the audacity to release a book titled A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. Other pundits shared the same sentiment in broadcast commentary, newspaper columns and online, but Steele went the furthest in committing a gross underestimation of candidate Barack Obama and of the American people who would elect him. Just one month after publication, Obama shook the world when he won the Iowa caucuses, and one year later, he was inaugurated as president. Steele and other professional opinion peddlers were proven devastatingly wrong, and the suddenness of this proof is but one example of how the presidency of Barack Obama has made the conversation about race in America more unpredictable than ever before.

The election of the first half-black president – which in America means its first black president – raised expectations and uncertainties about how this country would, perhaps for the first time in a while, begin to wrestle with the question of race in new ways. Would Obama’s presidency lead to unprecedented enlightenment, respect and candour around the topic of race? Would it provoke a backlash and release an uglier, more shameful conversation generally held in private? Would it fulfil the hopes and dreams of the Civil Rights Movement? Would it lead to a rush by white Americans to acquire more black friends?

Given the speed with which our modern society moves, however, one year is too inadequate an amount of time with which to render any final, meaningful verdict on the change in attitudes of Americans toward race. What it does offer, beyond the symbolism of an anniversary and the obligatory conclusion-drawing demanded by such symbolism, is an opportunity to look for hints of trends, to analyse some of the behaviour among the country’s media and political class (both of whom affect wider public opinion by setting the rules and range of public debate) and to ground both of these, to the extent possible, in actual measures of public opinion.

One year after the inauguration of President Obama, American attitudes toward race and the conversation around the topic have both changed dramatically and remained, obstinately, the same. By some accounts, the situation may even be worse.

This week, The Washington Post reported on a poll it conducted with ABC News which concluded that “soaring expectations about the effect of the first black president on US race relations have collided with a more mundane reality”.

According to the poll, the percentage of Americans who think Obama’s presidency will improve race relations has dropped from 58 per cent just before his inauguration to 41 per cent one year later. Among whites (which includes Latinos) and blacks the numbers show a prominent spike around inauguration as hope infected the country, and a return to more “normal” levels one year later as people realise that the election of Obama hasn’t resolved 400 years of history in just one year.

A Gallup poll from October 2009 found a similar spiking pattern around the question of whether race relations between blacks and whites would always be a problem in the US. The number who thought it would always be a problem dropped from 42 per cent in late 2006 to 30 per cent in late 2008 and rose back to 40 per cent in late 2009. This same poll found very little change in these attitudes versus what polling revealed in 1964, although the intervening years saw dips and spikes around major incidents like the OJ Simpson trial.

On the question of optimism about an eventual solution to race-relations problems, optimism among blacks has decreased since last summer, from 50 per cent to 42 per cent, while the responses among whites (and Latinos bundled in) saw a more modest drop from 60 to 59 per cent.

I can personally recall dozens of conversations with black Americans who genuinely thought the Age Of Obama would mean that finally someone with power would dedicate sustained resources and attention to problems which disproportionally affect communities of colour, only to find that this president, while intelligent and compassionate and with a community organising background, is now THE president of the entire country and refuses to engage in the sort of focus that an activist might. Despite often channelling the words of Martin Luther King Jr, President Obama is a different man with a different mandate and different limitations.

So what does this tell us? As usual, polling reveals much that we already know: the election – following an unprecedented presidential campaign – of a popular black candidate whose core theme was hope made the country more hopeful about race relations! Brilliant! Thanks pollsters!

It is critical to note, however, that Obama’s race was only one among many reasons he was elected in the first place. (It is a feature of American society that whenever a person of colour achieves prominence, his or her race becomes the focus of the story chronicling that rise. The same is not true of white Americans who are allowed to simply be American in the stories documenting their achievements.)

Obama won due to a confluence of factors: opposition to the Iraq war; a disciplined campaign that took advantage of a pre-existing movement for change; the personality, ambition, charisma, intellect and communications skills to ride that wave; and an incumbent party that had been in The White House for eight long years and which had unleashed a politician of mass destruction from whom the entire world is still recovering: George W Bush.

It would be a mistake to attribute Obama’s election in whole or even in majority part to some sudden racial enlightenment among the American public. The more reasonable explanation is that Obama was elected due to a combination of rare factors that came together at just the right time. In other words: magic.

People often forget that early on in Obama’s candidacy, any stated resistance to him around race came from within the black community. Established civil rights leaders ignored or |minimised him. Black radio hosts challenged his racial bona fides. In an interview, Al Sharpton responded to the Obama candidacy in part |by suggesting that black people don’t |live in Hawaii. And everyday black people, accustomed to the more symbolic black presidential candidacies of the past, did not take Obama seriously. When we did, we were confident white America would not.

But then he won in Iowa, and the racial discourse that set in shortly after that victory set the stage for what we would see in his first year as president.

People of colour in the United States, especially blacks but generally all, have had to constantly fight to be seen as legitimate members of this nation. Despite incredible sacrifice and |tangible measures of patriotism (eg, military enlistment), we are always under threat of being cast as The Other.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the first to cast Obama as The Other and in so doing remind the nation of just how race can and has worked in this country. From suggestions Obama might have been a drug dealer or secret Muslim to, Bill Clinton’s disrespect and anger, to Hillary Clinton’s own suggestion she was the only candidate who could get the support of “hard-working Americans, white Americans”, the Clintons provided an early draft version of a racialised campaign script.

The McCain/Palin campaign picked up this draft and perfected it, adding a domestic terrorism accusation, Kenyan birth conspiracy and resuscitating the age-old affirmative action excuse to explain Obama’s rise. They planted the fear that he would be black America’s president rather than America’s president who happened to be black.

So what has happened since then?

First, there was celebration. We were all Barack Obama for a few hours if not days and weeks after the election. Headlines screamed “Obama Overcomes”, “Obama Makes History”, “Obama Shatters Racial Barriers”, “A New Dawn”, and other similarly epic phrases. The Reverend Jesse Jackson cried, and the nation gave itself the biggest collective pat on the back in its history. We had done “it”, although it was never fully articulated just what “it” was.

For a few months, the Republican political opposition was silent, but that silence left a loud microphone available to be used by Rush Limbaugh and later Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin as they assumed de facto leadership of the party and appealed to the baser instincts of many to drive up their own support in irrational opposition to many of the President’s initiatives.

I’m thinking of right-wing talk show hosts such as the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson: “I think we all agree that Barack Obama was elected by, mostly by black racists and white guilty people,” Rush Limbaugh: “Obama’s entire economic program is reparations,” and Glenn Beck: “This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture.”

Rather than being a non-issue, race became the major subtext of almost every issue on which the Republicans disagreed with the President. The stimulus was welfare. Healthcare was welfare. And “welfare” in the US is code for “giving hard-working white people’s money to lazy people of colour”. Just last week we even heard conservative media distort America’s relief efforts in Haiti and make it about illegal immigration and Obama trying to undermine white America. But I’m skipping ahead, because we’ve got to acknowledge the “Tea Parties”.

Having their launch underwritten by an announcement on CNBC in February, these Tea Party rallies spread and poured into the summer with growing size, volume and volatility. Add to this the incoherent claims of Orly Taitz and the Birthers (who insist that Obama was born in Kenya), and it was as if we were back in the fall of 2008 at a McCain/Palin rally, with people bringing posters of Obama The Nazi, Obama The Bone-In-Nose African, or Obama The-Commie-Socialist-Baby-Killer, aka Obama The Other.

Of course, this isn’t the total picture either of the nation’s racial attitudes or the entire spectrum of Grand Old Party opposition, but the image of angry, mostly white mobs yelling in fear about a black Muslim Kenyan socialist president registered among the loudest voices in race-based conversation during 2009, and it had an impact on the larger media narrative. Besides covering (and in so doing amplifying) the fringe backlash against Obama, media organisations behaved as if they had just awakened to the fact that there were large numbers of non-white people in the country, and that these people might have complex stories worth telling.

CNN led the pack with a series of special programmes titled “Black In America” and “Latino In America”. These “Other In America” programmes were designed primarily for the white television audience in what was doubtless both a well-intentioned and marketing-savvy attempt to offer broad coverage of communities that are too-often relegated to a handful of stereotypical stories.

CNN spent 18 months producing these documentaries, and while the effort was more comprehensive than previous efforts by mainstream outlets, much of the criticism from blacks and Latinos focused on the fact that even this broader storytelling attempt cast black and Latino narratives in terms of struggles and challenges: higher rates of unemployment, crime, single parenthood and Aids, for example.

The timing and scope of the attempt were new, but the questions were essentially the same: “What is the ‘problem’ with race?” which inevitably leads to “What is the problem with people who have a race?”

The “Latino In America” series was particularly problematic because it revealed a painful contradiction at the network. CNN looked conscientious in reaching out to the fastest-growing population group in the country, but it was impossible to reconcile this work with the daily anti-immigrant demagoguery heaped upon Latinos by then-CNN host Lou Dobbs. The same network was claiming a) “Latino culture is rich and complex and is about more than just tacos!” and b) “Latino culture is responsible for rising crime and they are destroying white America and they have leprosy and will give leprosy to you!” Still, the CNN effort has a laudable aspect in that it shows a recognition by the media that “something” is happening in the United States around the topic of race. The resources spent to construct two four-hour documentary series is a testament to this awareness if not to its sophistication.

Another reason the CNN special is worthy of attention is that it strayed from the media’s general method of dealing with race, which is to react to some inflammatory incident or statement by a public figure. The summer arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates provides a perfect example.

In this case a prominent and powerful and black Harvard professor was arrested inside his own home by a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The story spread like wildfire and became a proxy for all the stories the media never does about real police brutality that affects many more citizens every day who are not famous. When Obama invited the arresting officer and Gates to the White House, it became known as “beer summit”, and the substantive discussion needed was smothered by celebrity status and cute soundbites.

With politicians from the opposing party using race in largely destructive ways and the mainstream media struggling to capture the “something” that has happened while still chasing its tail over the latest sensational “gaffe”, we are all missing the real, more difficult opportunity to keep adding nuance, complexity and respect to a topic that deserves all three.

If there is a consensus that’s emerged in this confusion in the media, surely it is captured by the rise of the term “post-racial”, for this has also been the year when one rhetorical question after another has asked: “Are we in a post-racial society because of the Obama election?” The idea is that, with the nation’s first black president, race doesn’t matter. The reality of the term is that it expresses desire more than reality – a desire to move “beyond” race or “get over” race or “transcend” race.

The popularity of “post-racial” in our nation’s discourse gets at the heart of what’s most likely the biggest impact the presidency of Obama has had: many of us don’t want people to have a race at all and hope that in adopting “post-racial,” we can avoid the awkward, messy and painful work that accompanies talking about race.

As Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude Jr observed at a Martin Luther King Jr celebration in Brooklyn, New York, this past weekend, “Post-racial is a lazy term. Something has happened, but we don’t know how to describe it yet.”

It is that search for a description of “what has happened” that makes the question of Obama’s impact on attitudes toward race so difficult to answer. Many in this country haven’t acknowledged “what happened” to the original inhabitants of this land and “what happened” to make America as wealthy as it has become, and those events happened several hundred years ago. So, coming up with a theory of race in the midst of this current transition is nearly impossible.

In short, have American attitudes toward race changed in President Barack Obama’s first year? The answers are yes, no and maybe.

Baratunde Thurston is the co-founder of Jack & Jill Politics and performs regularly in New York City, where he is web and politics editor for The Onion and also hosts Popular Science’s Future Of on the Science Channel

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