It is now a commonplace that the election of Barack Obama marks the opening of a new period in America's long racial history. The unlikely rise of a black man to the nation's highest office—someone who was a mostly unknown state senator only five years before he was inaugurated president—confirms the view of many, especially whites, that the United States is a postracial society. At last, the shackles of discrimination have been broken and individual merit is rewarded, regardless of skin color. In this view, blackness—once the clearest marker of difference in American society—has lost some or all of its stigma. Barack Obama, in the most common formulation, transcends race; his ancestry fuses African and European into a new hybrid; his political vision of unity discredits those who cling bitterly to notions of racial superiority and, at the same time, rebukes those who harbor a divisive identity politics fueled by an exaggerated sense of racial grievance.
As with all interpretations of the relationship between the past and the present, the notion that Obama's election marks an epochal change in racial dynamics is not without its critics. Obama himself offers a tempered view, suggesting that even if America has advanced considerably over the last forty years, some racial prejudices remain in place and some racial discrimination still exists. In his view, we have realized much,