Racial Justice After Obama

In response to my post about Hillary Rodham Clinton the other day, several people — including Rebecca Spiff, in comments here — wrote to remind me that President Obama has been pretty terrible on a number of racial justice issues. Fair enough. I thought it was worth taking a look at some of what Obama’s done and what the landscape of racial justice looks like as he leaves office.



From my perspective, I’d chalk up these in the category of “accomplishments” toward racial justice for Obama:

  • Symbolic Barrier Busted. Until Barack Obama was elected president, it was merely a theoretical idea that a black person could be president of the United States. It’s hard to know how to measure the impact of this on the world, it could be that it has an aspirational effect (also difficult to measure).
  • Aspirational. For young people born after 2007 or so, a black president is all they have ever known of the U.S. Perhaps this will aspire one young African American, like Marquis Govan – the inspiring 11 year old from Ferguson, Missouri –  to run for the highest office in the land.
  • Speeches. President Obama has given some amazing speeches, a few of them about race, and one in speech in particular that stands out.

And, now for his policies, which have not done much to advance racial justice:

And then there is the attitudinal research.

In a poll from January, 2015 by Al Jazeera America and Monmouth University, researchers asked respondents about about “race relations” found just 15% say they’ve improved since Obama was elected, while nearly half say they believe that race relations in the United States have gotten worse since 2008.

Race Relations Bar Graph



And, a 2012 poll by the Associated Press found an increase in racist attitudes — or, I should say, an increased willingness to express racist attitudes — among people in the U.S. that they surveyed. This short video (3:40) from Al Jazeera discusses the findings:

Perhaps the point that Rebecca made is the relevant one here: that HRC and Obama are cut from the same cloth and we can expect about the same progress on racial justice under her that we’ve had under him, which is to say, not much. The larger point is that politicians will follow where the people lead and it’s up to us to lead with our activism and holding them accountable.

I, Too, Sing America: A Different Perspective on Obama

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.
–Langston Hughes

Like Jessie, I too have been overwhelmed by Obama’s victory.  I’ve been uplifted every day this week simply by thinking to myself, “We have a black president-elect” (image from here).

My background is very different from Jessie’s. I grew up in North Carolina in the 1980s, a beneficiary of the gains made during the Civil Rights movement. However, coming of age in the post-Civil Rights south was hardly idyllic. I never had to integrate any lunch counters, buses, or schools, but even without the structural machinations of legal segregation in place, racism was still manifest and evident. Whites still found a way to make it clear that while we could now use the same facilities and attend the same schools, in no way did they consider us equal. By the time I was eight I knew that the Klan still existed and was acutely aware of my (black) family’s relative vulnerability. Around age ten I remember noticing a pattern of whites getting better treatment than people of color in restaurants and stores. By thirteen, I had developed what C. Wright Mills would call a “sociological imagination” when it came to assessing issues of race and inequality. At fifteen, I discovered sociology and decided on the career path that would help me make sense of and name many of the things I’d seen growing up.

Being aware of these things so early on meant that by the time I reached adulthood, regular issues with racism and discrimination simply became par for the course. At age twenty four, when I went to view an apartment and the potential landlord visibly blanched when she saw me and grabbed her purse with one hand and her young daughter’s hand with the other, it didn’t faze me. I just decided not to bother calling her about an application. At twenty one , when my dad and I were driving through Virginia and he got pulled over for speeding, I didn’t stop to think about how sad it was that my immediate reaction was a paralyzing fear that the traffic stop could end with some cruel  humiliation or him being hurt. I just considered us both lucky that he was released with only a ticket.  When I was nineteen and my mom showed me the anonymous letter someone left in her mailbox that described the ways “people of color” (not the term they used) were all drug addicts and welfare mothers who were taking over a white country, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t have much of a reaction.

My point here is that if you grow up in this country as a black American, too often these things become part of the fabric of everyday life. They become so commonplace and regular that it’s not hard to become desensitized to them, which in a way, is the worst part of racism. You think to yourself, well, today, I’ll get dressed and meet friends for lunch, but I’ll need to allow extra time for the subway since cabdrivers won’t stop for me, and I’ll have to make sure I tip the waitress well to do my part to offset the stereotype that black people won’t tip, and so on…just another day. To borrow a phrase from Thomas Shapiro, these are some of the other hidden costs of being African American.

This is the context in which I followed Obama’s path in the primary and the general election. Black people know well that in this country we are routinely devalued, marginalized, and subordinated in a myriad of different ways. There are the overt and horrific (think James Byrd, Jr. of Jasper, Texas) and the subtle and easily-overlooked (see the ABC Prime Time Live segment “True Colors”). But part of being black in America means confronting and coping with the consistent message that you still aren’t equal, don’t belong, and often can’t expect to be treated with basic human dignity. This is why none of the black people with whom I spoke were completely confident Obama would win, despite the poll numbers, inconsistent McCain campaign, and tanking economy. We know what it means when race pushes you to the margins of society. When black people of all ages say emphatically, “I never thought I would live to see this day,” to me, that speaks to the recognition we all have of how regular experiences with racism take a toll on us, shaping our expectations and our lives.

When I saw “Barack Obama Elected President” flash across the bottom of my TV screen, it brought up all the feelings and thoughts I’ve been describing here. It made me fully aware of how often being black means coping with daily onslaughts, being excluded from the political process, and being forced into “outsider within” status. It made me aware of these things by contrast, because—like Michelle Obama–for the first time in my life, I felt included. The glass ceiling had been broken. For the first time ever in this country, someone who looked like me, who could relate to my experiences, would be occupying the nation’s highest office. When I saw other black people on TV sobbing or even just tearing up, I knew what they felt because it was in me too. We experience so much negativity, pain, and oppression in this country that sometimes we don’t even notice it. In this context, Obama’s win meant so much to all of us because it was a welcome shift from the exclusion and hostility that characterize much of our basic experience as black people in America.

I do not want this to be misread as a statement that if only black people believed in ourselves, we could defeat racism and accomplish any goals. This is not what I’m saying, and such a statement is shortsighted and profoundly factually inaccurate.  All of the racial issues (prison industrial complex, health care inequities, educational disparities, economic and wealth inequality, and more) that we write about on this blog are still happening and won’t disappear just because we have a black president. But I predict that the success of President-elect Barack Obama will have a long-lasting and meaningful effect for many, but for Black Americans in particular. It provides a bright spot in an otherwise often bleak sea of inequity. On November 4, we too sang America.

What Obama Means to Me: A Personal Note

I don’t know about you, but I’m still periodically crying in celebration and relief at the news of an Obama presidency.    I feel as if something that I can’t yet name has broken loose, and I think it’s important to continue to mark this celebratory moment and talk very specifically about what it means and why it’s important.   I have a video clip of an election night montage, including part of Obama’s acceptance speech, saved to my iPhone and it makes me cry every time I watch it, and I’ve watched it every day since Tuesday.  I watched it riding the 6 train to Union Square yesterday and cried all over again, sitting there among all those strangers (image from here).   I have no intention of deleting it.   At some point, I’m sure the impact of this important symbolism will fade a bit, but it certainly hasn’t yet.

Part of why the election of Obama as president is meaningful for me is that it marks some significant distance traveled in my lifetime.   I was born in the same year as Barack Obama, 1961, but to parents who existed on the other side of a vast racial chasm from his parents.   Indeed, my parents in South Texas would have seen the union of Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. as evidence of all that was wrong with the world at that time.   And, the birth of Barack would have illicited – at best – some “tsk,tsk,tsk’s” from my parents about the “tragedy of a mulatto child” who would have to bear the mark of his parents’ thoughtless act of bringing him into the world.   I could easily imagine any of my grandparents, all four of whom were still alive in 1961 (and one of whom had been a KKK member in the 1920s), talking casually about the murder of an African man who had married a white woman, or their interrracial child, as part of what would set the world right again.  I can easily imagine my parents agreeing with them, if not initiating that conversation.   I can imagine these things because I heard similar conversations growing up about black leaders of the day; vile racist messages were the stuff of easy dinner conversation where I grew up.   And, on Tuesday I, along with millions of others, voted for Obama and danced in the street in Harlem in celebration.

So, what accounts for this distance traveled?  As I said, this is a personal note, so for me the distance traveled is about a “life-long struggle with the notion of white superiority” as one reviewer wrote about my work (Van Ausdale, Social Forces, September, 1998).  Those early dinner conversations about race were part of what spurred me to study race and racism in graduate school.   One of the most powerful experiences I had in the process of unlearning racism was working on Joe’s book (with Melvin Sykes), Living with Racism.  As part of work as a research assistant, I transcribed all the interviews in that book.  When I sat down to begin that work, I had moved away from the views of my parents and shared the views of most of my white liberal friends that racism was a bad thing but that it was an anomaly, and that charges of racism by blacks were either “exaggeration” or looking for grievance based on historically distant acts.  As I began listening to the recordings of middle-class black Americans talk about their daily experiences of racism, I initially objected to what I was hearing and wanted to take exception with the respondents in that study.   But the reality of the transcribing task is that you listen, carefully, and write down every word.  And, so I listened.  Carefully.  Noting each word.   Eventually, I learned to stop objecting and just listen.   After transcribing more than 200 hour-long interviews, I was a different person.   What I heard were people who were not “exaggerating” about racism, but rather often tried to minimize it.  The people in these interviews had learned really effective, often elaborate, coping skills for how to deal with something that was just a reality in their lives.   And, all of the people in the study were far more accomplished (in terms of education, occupation and income) than anyone in my family despite all the barriers that they had faced.   That experience of deep listening radicalized me.

In the preface to my first book (here), I wrote some about what my particular standpoint at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality has meant for my own work on white supremacy.  What I couldn’t know then is that writing that preface would cost me.   After I wrote that, I sent it to my father (my mother had died by then).    When my father read the preface, he reacted badly which is to vastly undrestate the case.  He tried to stop the publication of that book, tried to have me locked up, and we never spoke to me again.   (He died two years later in an industrial accident.) The fact is speaking out about racism, and in particular the lineage of racism in my family and connecting that to the larger story of white supremacy in American culture, was seen as a deep betrayal by my father.  I was supposed to uphold white supremacy, not call it out for the lie that it is.   It was about this same time that I also changed my name – from the one my father, and his father the Klan-member gave me – to one that reflected the anti-racist tradition I wanted to claim instead.  As my new namesake, I chose Jessie Daniel Ames, the white woman anti-lynching activist who founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.   For me, an Obama presidency represents an important symbolic shift in the legacy of white supremacy that has shaped my own life and has been the inheritance of this nation.

I don’t mean to exaggerate the racial progress that is represented by one black man being elected president.  As if “one black man could make it as a president, Katrina didn’t *really* happen just years ago,” as BFP cogently observed.  Yet, it still makes me cry tears of joy and relief, in part because it’s taken so very long.

Today, I write critically about race here and in academic publications, I teach in an institution that serves predominantly non-white, first-generation college students, I’m a member of a multiracial congregation, and there are beautiful biracial kids in my family.   None of this happened by accident, by being “color blind,” or as the result of some inevitable march toward “progress.”   The distance that I’ve traveled from being the daughter of ardent segregationists to being an anti-racist activist is one that is marked by intentionality.  I set out to learn about race and unlearn my own racism, and in the process, engage others in that process as well.   There’s a lot more work to be done on my own individual racism and on institutional racism, such as the school-to-prison pipeline that continues to operate unabated.

While some delusional commentators will mark this moment by declaring that racism never existed, others are offering much more nuanced examinations of what this election means, and how we might expand and continue the work of examining racism in an Obama-era.  The hope I have for an Obama presidency is that this is the beginning of widening that circle to include more people in thinking critically about race and taking action against racism, both individual and institutionalized.   For now, I’ll continue to get deep joy from knowing that after four hundred years we finally have a black president.

Voters of Color: Unsung Heroes of the 2008 Election

According to the CNN and ABC exit polls, white Americans overwhelmingly wanted John McCain to be the next US president. The white vote was lopsided for McCain at 55-43 percent. If the 2008 electorate had the same demographic character as any before about 1980 (that is being nearly 90 percent white), Senator John McCain would currently be the president-elect.

But as we know that did not happen, because the electorate this time was only 74 percent white, and those voters who were not white voted very heavily for Senator Obama. ABC News’ exit polls are reported this way, in terms of percentages for Obama/McCain:

White Americans: 43/55
Black Americans: 95/4
Latino Americans: 67/31
Asian Americans: 62/35
Other Americans: 66/31

Some high-density Asian American counties on the West Coast voted at even higher rates of 70 percent, and Shari’s (H/T) check of local sources on Native Americans reveals that their vote was lopsided too:

The Native American numbers I got from looking at the election returns in counties that have reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado [show] the range of the Obama spread was from 62 to 87 percent.

The role of voters of color in electing Senator Obama the next president is in my view one of the most important stories of this historic election, yet I have not seen serious mainstream media analysis of this and of what it means about the rise of a multiracial democracy and the decline of white political dominance in the United States. Why is this story not getting major attention? Perhaps it is because the white-controlled, intensively white-framed mass media are all caught up in declaring this to be a “post-racial” or “post-racist America.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Another obvious fact about this election, which has also gotten little play in the media, is the continuing reality of the Republican Party being mainly the “white party” of the United States. This party gets very few African American voters and does not get even 40 percent of any other group of color.

I have seen a little media commentary on whether the Republican “southern strategy” is still viable, but no discussion of the fact that such a term is only another racism-denying euphemism for what is in fact the “white southern strategy” or “white racist strategy” of the Republican Party. (It is correctly called these latter terms because some 20-40 percent of “southerners” are not white, depending on the area of the South.) Since the 1960s this Republican strategy has been a “white southern” strategy but almost no analysts in or outside the mainstream media are willing to call it by its correct name–just as they are unwilling to call the so-called “Bradley effect” by its correct name (either the “white racism effect” or the “whites-lying effect”). The Republican Party currently has no Black members in Congress or in other high elected offices, and none in high party leadership. It has only a very few (token) appointed officials in high office and has indeed shown no significant leadership on or commitment to civil rights enforcement issues since the 1960s. (For more, see here. ) It is indeed still the “white party,” as this election dramatically reveals and as even Howard Dean let slip in August this year.

“Ground Game” in PA: Anti-Racist Organizing

Pennsylvania has rather infamously been described as “Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in the middle.”  After Obama’s win, there’s a lot of armchair-quarterbacking going on, a good deal of it has to do with the “ground game,” which refers to those community-organizing strategies like knocking on doors, contacting people in person, by phone, and wherever they happen to be hanging out to engage them about the candidate.  As just one of dozens of examples, last night Jake Tapper of ABC was talking about Pennsylvania as “the big prize” for the Obama campaign.  In his on-air analysis, he suggested that the winning strategies of the campaign were focusing on economy and paying attention to the “ground game.”  Following Tapper’s analysis, ABC commentators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopolous agreed and went on to praise the Obama campaign for their “ground game.”   If you lift the hood and look at what this actually involved in those face-to-face and door-to-door conversations, it looks a lot like anti-racist organizing.

This American Life has an episode called, “The Ground Game” (from 10/24) that illustrates what I mean by this.  The segment called “Union Halls,” features the really admirable efforts of Richard Trumka (image from Wikipedia).   Here’s the description of the segment from the show’s website:

No one much likes to talk about it out loud, but everyone knows it’s true: There are a lot of people out there who say they won’t vote for Obama because he’s black. To fight this problem, Richard Trumka, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, has been traveling around the country giving a speech to fellow union members. It ends with a plea: You must stand up, and deal with race directly. Talk about it. Producer Lisa Pollak spent a month hanging out with union members, eavesdropping on their conversations, to see if Trumka’s directive was working.

They way they’ve framed this story is interesting: “What no one much likes to talk about but everyone knows it’s true…” is that there’s racism.    True enough, “no one much likes to talk about it,” it’s part of why we maintain this blog.  And, less true, “everyone knows it’s true,” there seems to be a lot of protestations to the contrary (but that’s the subject for another post).   The seventeen-and-a-half-minute segment is worth listening to in full and you can listen to it here (link opens to the full length episode, this is “Act Three,” about 25 minutes in).   What you learn from listening to Trumka’s story, and the story of lost of union members who worked hard in the “ground game” confronting and cajoling people about their racism.  As a union leader, Trumka developed something of his own stump speech, that was an impassioned call to anti-racism for union members.    In that speech, Trumka is plainspoken about the racism he’s encountered:

“We can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there, a lot of them are good union people, who just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man.”

From my perspective, there has been – and continues to be – a great deal of “tap dancing” around the issue of racism, including discussion of the “ground game” that doesn’t explicitly acknowledge this kind of direct engagement with people’s racism (such as the ABC report above).  Another story that Trumka uses in his speech and that makes it into the radio segment linked above is this one:

“This woman walks up to me. I’d known her for a long time, and I ask her ‘Have you decided who you gonna vote for?’ ”

“There’s no way I’d ever vote for Barack Obama,” the woman responded.

Trumka said he pressed her as to why. First, she said it’s because Obama is “a Muslim.” Trumka responded that Obama is actually a Christian.

Then, she told him Obama never wears an American flag pin on his lapel. Trumka told her that, too, is false, then asked her why she wasn’t wearing one if that is such an important issue.

Trumka said he continued to push, until “her eyes dropped down and she said to me, ‘Well, he’s a black man.’ ”

Trumka said he told her to look around at their town, the mining community where they both had lived for so long. “And I said to her, ‘This town is dying — literally dying.’ ”

“Our kids are moving away because there’s no future here,” Trumka said in the United Steelworkers convention address. “And here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s going to fight for people like us, and you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?”

It wasn’t only union leaders like Trumka that engaged in this anti-racism political organizing, it was rank-and-file union members.   This sort of one-on-one engagement with people about their racism is a good part of what’s euphemistically described as the “ground game.”  And, this is just the kind of thing we need in this new era.

Historic, Unprecedented Change

Tonight the United States elected the first African American  president, and with it voted for historic, unprecedented change.  It is a remarkable moment.   I was in Harlem when the news broadcast on the jumbotron announced that Barack Obama was the 44th President.  It’s difficult to find the words to convey the exhiliration and joy at this news (image: mine).  The streets of Harlem were like Mardi Gras, people openly wept, danced and embraced strangers (including me).   Cars passing on the street honked their horns as drivers shouted “O-bam-a!” out the window.   Here’s Adam Nagourney’s take on the election tonight writing for the New York Times’ :

Mr. Obama’s election amounted to a national catharsis — a repudiation of a historically unpopular Republican president and his economic and foreign policies, and an embrace of Mr. Obama’s call for a change in the direction and the tone of the country. But it was just as much a strikingly symbolic moment in the evolution of the nation’s fraught racial history, a breakthrough that would have seemed unthinkable just two years ago.

Unthinkable indeed, and I think you could see that on any number of faces, including Jesse Jackson’s as he – and many others of us – wept at the realization of Obama’s achievement.  And, Nagourney gets it right when he calls it a “strikingly symbolic moment” in the “nation’s fraught racial history.”    My hope tonight is that this marks the beginning of a new era.

The Meaning of Wright in the Obama Campaign

What does it mean that white Americans are (apparently) willing to elect Barack Obama, a black politician, but still unwilling to engage the discourse of race and discuss continued, un-equalized race relations between people of color and whites and the long, on-going history of white racism in America? How is this socio-psychological paradox explained?

At the center of this paradox of race and politics is Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright (image from RobinDude via Flickr). I agree with Joe that Wright is “actually an American prophet, indeed a prophetic hero who is not afraid to condemn this country’s racist government actions, past and present.” But I would stress that Wright’s demonization and complete marginalization, not just by mainstream media and Republican circles, but also by Obama and the Democratic party, demonstrates a much deeper problem in American race relations and in ways that Americans understand and deal with the ‘race problem.’ Obama’s distancing himself from Wright and categorical condemnation of Wright’s social philosophies about American government was clearly stated. One hopes this was only a temporary, strategic political move to reach a powerful office (wouldn’t be the first time a politician momentarily masked their ideological position to win an election) and that, in fact, Obama will champion policies that amend the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of blacks and other nonwhite minorities.

Whatever is behind Obama’s decision to sever his relationship with Wright, the fact remains that he was forced to denunciate Wright and suppress Wright’s message about the history of white racism in order to maintain political viability in American politics, illustrating that mainstream America is not yet willing to seriously address the murky, taboo issue of race. As Obama’s society-sanctioned sacrifice of Wright demonstrates, both republicans and democrats—Fox News and MSNBC—and the American public at large call for Obama to disassociate with and denounce Wright’s unsettling message.

The exclusion of Wright’s discourse about race is the exclusion of truth about US history and social reality. This exclusion is a cowardly avoidance of moral responsibility and signals that whites wish to maintain their privilege and unfair advantages—white supremacy—in the social world. Sadly, most white Americans—mainstream America—ignorantly discount the harsh realities of race in America observed in the critical perspectives of those who are racially oppressed. Unlike blacks and other nonwhite minority groups, whites fail to acknowledge the institutional and systemic nature of white racism, possibly because white racism is a system that greatly benefits the very existence and life chances of most whites.

Does Obama’s ascendancy in American politics demonstrate that America has come a long way in matters of race, the dominant narrative portrayed in newspapers and news shows? The silencing of Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright would reveal not. Nevertheless, white Americans will now loudly pat themselves on the back and claim that Obama’s political popularity signifies that racism is dead, overlooking Wright’s description of the deeply embedded institutional racism that still grips the politics, economics, culture and social world of Americans, failing to ponder questions like: how many black US Senators are there now, how many black Fortune 500 CEOs, what is the face of the nightly news anchorman, who is average Joe the Plumber?

~ Sean Elias, PhD Candidate, Sociology, Texas A&M University
Lecturer, Sociology, Southern Methodist University

On Racism, “Better Angels” and Self-Interest

The election is almost here and the news involving racism just gets more complex with each passing day.    While a few commentators wonder whether the country is truly prepared for a black President, while McCain says race will “play no part” in the election and Obama calls on the “better angels” and tries to reassure voters that they do not need to fear “secret racism.” The facile notion that racists will vote for McCain and those free of racism will vote for Obama is far too simplistic to hold much weight in this intricate knot of an election season (image from here).  Some of the complexity here around racism is illustrated in a thoughtful piece at Salon.com by James Hannaham, called “Racists for Obama”.   About half way in, Hannaham makes this provocative observation:

“The number of racists who aren’t voting for Obama isn’t as interesting as the number of racists who are. That he has any racist supporters at all points to a quality in bigotry that few people ever acknowledge — flexibility. It’s usually assumed that racism is all-powerful, that it alone will cause someone to vote against a black candidate. But blackness is just one possible plus or minus in a balance sheet with many entries. In an abysmal economy during which the white candidate’s campaign has seemed disorganized and erratic, common sense or shared values can prevail over gut fears about the color of a candidate’s skin.”

Hannaham then goes on to refer to the analogy (attributed to Democratic strategist Paul Begala) about asking a white voter, “How would you feel about a large black man kicking your door in,” they would say, “That doesn’t sound good to me… ”   But any reasonable person would change their response if they heard the additional information that “Your house is on fire, and the firefighter happens to be black.” Hannaham uses that to argue:

“Perhaps urgent circumstances require so much self-interest that racism can wait, at least until the crisis is over. Maybe this is why Obama’s poll numbers seemed to rise along with the volatility of the world’s financial markets.”

These are interesting times to try and understand the complexiites of racial politics.  I do hope that tomorrow people will call on their “better angels,” or simply their self-interest, and vote for change.