The election of Barack Obama has had surprisingly little impact on a nation fixated with race.
By Kevin Gaines
In 1886, the African American abolitionist and spokesman Frederick Douglass published “The Future of the Coloured Race,” an essay which held that the biological assimilation of black Americans was inevitable. The Negro, in the parlance of the time, would neither be annihilated nor expatriated, nor would he “survive and flourish” as a distinct and separate group. Instead, “he will be absorbed, assimilated” into the white majority, visible “in the features of a blended race.” For Douglass, this amalgamation was a fait accompli, despite white protestations against interracial intimacy.
Writing amid the codification of a new system of racial segregation in the south of the US, and soon after his marriage to a white woman, Helen Pitts, had angered many. Douglass’s vision of racial comity through the biological absorption of blacks and whites was edgy, even transgressive. Still, it proved no match for the white south’s concerted assault on the political and social rights of black people, which persisted until the mid-1960s reforms of the civil rights movement. In a manner reminiscent of Douglass, since the 1990s advocates of the multiracial movement have looked to the growing population of mixed race Americans, neither black nor white, as evidence of racial progress. First Tiger Woods, and now Barack Obama, have embodied for many Americans the solution to the nation’s historical racial conflicts. Our black or, as some prefer, biracial president has become for many a symbol of reconciliation and national unity.
Yet, just as Douglass had done in his own time, the multiracial movement exaggerates the extent to which the post-civil rights increase of interracial marriages and their mixed-race offspring constitutes a solution to the problem of racism. As critics of multiracial ideology have noted, positive perceptions of mixed-race people as less threatening are often rooted in pejorative assumptions about blacks as angry or inferior. In other words, this idealised view of ‘bi-racial’ people reinforces, rather than challenges, prevailing notions of racial difference, of white superiority and black inferiority. The fascination with Obama as a seemingly ‘raceless’ mediator, once praised by a news presenter who gushed after a major presidential speech, “For an hour, I forgot he was black,” is a far cry from the resentful perception in some quarters of his wife, Michelle, as an “angry black woman.” The belief that a mixed race president heralds an era of racial harmony seems not just naïve, but misguided.
Historically, black social advances have often elicited white resistance and backlash, as was the case when public school districts throughout the white South refused to comply with the unanimous US Supreme Court decision desegregating public education in 1954. Undeniably, Obama’s election is a source of hope for many Americans and people the world over. But to others, militant white nationalists who imagine themselves as the true representatives of the American people, Obama remains a lightning rod for age-old fears and hatreds.
A quick survey of public policy, the market, employment, and citizenship, the latter as understood through Hannah Arendt's formulation of "the right to have rights", belies assumptions of racial progress among proponents of multiracial ideology. For example, the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks since the 'war on drugs' of the 1980s and 1990s provides an example of colour-blind policies with a divergent racial impact. A recent book by Michelle Alexander calls this forced migration of millions from black communities to prison facilities the new Jim Crow. In states with felony disfranchisement laws, such as Florida, former convicts are stripped of their voting rights. In the historic 2000 presidential election, Florida election officials purged tens of thousands of law-abiding black citizens from the voting rolls, claiming that their names matched those of felons.
Recent studies show the wealth gap between whites and blacks increasing. For generations, blacks were subjected to racial discrimination in mortgage lending and residential segregation, depriving them of opportunities for wealth accumulation across generations through home ownership. In recent years, higher-income blacks remain victims of discrimination by mortgage lenders, often paying on average substantially more for home loans than their white counterparts. In addition, college educated blacks on the job market are finding it necessary to purge their resumes of tell-tale signs of their blackness to get a foot in the door and a face-to-face interview. Some change their names, exchanging putatively 'black' monikers for something more 'mainstream'. Or, they remove black-themed job experiences or activities altogether.
Interracial dating and biracial offspring may suggest a softening of the most violent racial prejudices of the past (though, not long after Obama's inauguration a Louisiana official refused to grant a marriage licence to a black man and a white woman). But a more significant barometer of racial and social progress over time has been increased access by women and minorities to higher education, and the expansion of opportunities for doctoral and professional training among those previously excluded groups. The banning of affirmative action in university admissions by referendum in California and several other states has dramatically reduced the number of black students in the flagship institutions of these states. Indeed, early this year members of the shrinking population of black students at the state's San Diego campus staged mass protests after a series of incidents of racial hostility by whites, suggesting that many see black students as unwelcome members of the university community, even after the banning of affirmative action.
Conservatives detested president Bill Clinton, but the presence of the nation's first black president has met with an alarming escalation of hateful and seditious speech. Republican elected officials have abdicated the role of a loyal opposition, allowing extremists who refuse to believe Obama is a US citizen (and therefore reject the legitimacy of his office) speak for the party. When the euphoria that attended his election and inauguration had subsided, it became clear that the nation remains profoundly divided.
With the recent passage of landmark national health insurance legislation (despite the inflammatory rhetoric and opposition of anti-tax conservatives), Republicans seem to be channelling the history of the US Civil War by mounting defiant state campaigns to resist federal law, and rallying behind the incendiary race-baiting of broadcast media identities who claim to represent the will of the people, exhorting their listeners to "take back" their country. When, on the eve of the historic vote, black and homosexual members of Congress ran a gauntlet of opponents of health care reform shouting racial and homophobic epithets, the success of attempts by right-wing talk hosts and Republican officials to exploit the economic insecurity of whites was clear. The portrayal of health care reform in racist terms by its opponents as "reparations", "civil rights", or "welfare" says a great deal about the history of the conservative movement over the last generation.
The barrage of invective greeting the Obama Administration and its agenda led to the resignation of Van Jones, who had been a leading advisor to the president for 'green jobs'. Jones, an African American, took an unusual approach towards the man responsible for his leaving the administration, Fox News television talk show host, Glenn Beck. Beck had made a number of unsubstantiated allegations about Jones, calling him a communist, among other things. Accepting an award from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) for his work in building a green economy, Jones addressed Beck as his "fellow countryman." "I see you, and I love you, brother. I love you and you cannot do anything about it. Let's be one country. Let's be one country. Let's get the job done." Jones's conciliatory posture toward the polarising figure of Beck represents a new pragmatism, an awareness among younger activists that even those whites who espouse racist views can be disabused of them through respectful engagement.
On the one hand, there are advocates of multiracial ideology who strangely believe that white racism has been vanquished by interracial intimacy in the boudoir. By extension, the multiracialists imagine that the only racists left are those African Americans who question their attempts to distance themselves politically and socially from blacks. On the other hand, Jones and other young activists insist on the necessity of actively opposing white racism, as a means of building coalitions based on a public vision of the common good. Jones and others view anti-racist work as a means to embrace the humanity and better angels of their political adversaries. This strategy is not simply an outgrowth of the age of Obama. It hearkens back to the vision of nonviolent social change and redemptive Christian love, espoused during the US civil rights movement by the likes of Martin Luther King and James Baldwin, and recognises the profound difference between amalgamation and reconciliation.