Barack Obama’s Election
and America’s Racial Orders1
Rogers M. Smith and Desmond King
BARACK OBAMA’S RISE to the presidency has been accompanied by much debate, in both academia and popular political discourse, over whether his success represents a “postracial” politics or is the harbinger of a postracial era in U.S. politics (e.g., Connerly 2008; Street 2008; Bobo and Dawson 2008, i; Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2008, 739). Though there is great skepticism, particularly in academia, about whether the United States is genuinely moving beyond a politics shaped by racial divisions, even skeptics accept that Obama ran a postracial, or at least a “race-neutral,” campaign (Baiocchi 2008; Sinclair-Chapman and Price 2008, 741). Here we seek not to challenge but to give greater specificity to these contentions by analyzing the 2008 presidential campaign strategies and the prospects for racial equity in the nation’s future through the lens of what we have argued to be the basic structure of American racial politics: the continuing clashes between America’s rival racial institutional orders (King and Smith 2005; 2008; 2011).
To understand if it makes sense to analyze the present and future of U.S. politics in postracial terms, we begin with the question: Should we simply accept that the United States has already entered an era of postracial politics? After all, a major party nominated and elected a presidential candidate commonly seen as black, and neither that candidate nor his opponent focused on race or racial issues during the campaign and in their proposed policy choices facing the country. Surely this silence about race and racial policies is a defining characteristic of a postracial politics.