Barack Obama, Racial Progress, and the Future of Race Relations in the United States

Article excerpt

Introduction

Barack Obama's presidency is often described as a definitive affirmation of racial progress in the United States and a sign of a more inclusive future (Frank, 2008; Nagoumey, 2008; Herbert, 2008; Swarns, 2008; Dyson, 2008). While it is clear that not everyone agrees with this optimistic outlook and racial inequalities persist in the US, there should be little doubt that the election of America's first Black president, unimaginable just a few years ago, has inspired millions (especially younger generations of Americans) to believe that the country is currently on a path toward what Obama himself referred to in his famous "race speech" as a "more perfect union"--i.e., a new United States of America that will gradually break from its racist history. For this and other reasons, many of Obama's supporters describe him as a "transformational figure" whose presidency represents a "paradigm shift."

Yet despite abundant public support for the new president and his call for "unity" and "change," discussions and debates in the blogosphere and mainstream press about the possibility for continued racial progress in the wake of Barack Obama's victorious presidential campaign often revolve around a number of interrelated themes/messages that can be quite problematic to those who seek to challenge the racial status quo in this country. These include : (1) the possibility for a "post-racial" society in which race and "racial politics" are no longer relevant (e.g., Cohen, 2008; Bai, 2008; Thernstrom and Thernstrom, 2008); (2) declarations about how Obama and his family will likely challenge racial stereotypes and hence improve the way Whites see Blacks (e.g., Mack, 2009; Givhan, 2009 ; Fletcher, 2009); and (3) statements about how Obama's presidency has rekindled African Americans' belief in American egalitarianism and the so-called American Dream (e.g., Dyson, 2008).

Our central argument in this paper is that all of these positions, although typically well intended, are underpinned by a constellation of assumptions that, in various ways, reflect and support White hegemony. Namely, these discussions point to a type of "racial progress" that operates within the prevailing racial status quo by, among other things: (1) emphasizing racial accommodation and equal participation rather than social transformation; (2) measuring the worthiness and normalcy of Blacks along standards associated with Whiteness that are presumed to be apolitical and a-historical, thereby reaffirming the hegemonic stature of White privilege, and (3) assuming that an increase in racial tolerance will be enough to challenge racism, thus obscuring further the structural character of contemporary racism. We address how the Obama administration's "color-blind" style of governance inadvertently supports these problematic tendencies, and conclude with a brief statement about the possibility for an anti-racist future in the United States.

Barack Obama and the US as a "Post-Racial" Society: Racial Progress or the Reinforcement of Color Blind Racism?

Although undeniably a milestone in US history, Obama's presidency might further legitimize a problematic discourse on race that began in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. As is well known, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s had a profound impact in terms of eradicating legal racial segregation and challenging overt racial bigotry (e.g., Doane, 2003). Thus, for the past several decades, the claim is often made that Americans live in a so-called "post civil rights era" in which racism is an anomalous or statistically fortuitous practice that has little impact on people's life chances (Bonilla-Silva, 2006). As argued by William Julius Wilson (1980) three decades ago, race in the United States, although by no means irrelevant, has "declined in significance."

At the same time, a large body of literature identifies various forms of racism that emerged during this post-civil rights era. …