Imagining Race Under an Obama Presidency

Yesterday, I sat with my husband and watched Barack and Michelle Obama on television as he stood poised to become the Democratic nominee for president (photo from here). It was a strange, surreal moment, because it was one of those few obviously historic ones you immediately know you’ll always remember. For the first time in my life, my husband and I looked at a couple who looked like us, who shared backgrounds and experiences similar to ours, and watched them shatter a near-400 year old glass ceiling to become the first black candidate nominated by a major party as a presidential candidate. (I know technically this is “his” accomplishment, not “theirs,” but as anyone in a relationship knows, most major successes are in many ways a joint venture. ☺)

I had mixed feelings watching the Obamas on television last night. I was proud of his achievement, but concerned for his safety. But perhaps most strongly, while I was indescribably pleased that yet another barrier had been broken, I was concerned about what would come next. A lot of the debate about Obama’s candidacy has addressed whether or not he can win in the fall. There is concern over Obama’s problem with white women and working-class whites (which should more accurately be described as these whites’ problem with Obama). There is discussion, much of it on this blog, about whether racism will prevail and facilitate a McCain victory. But yesterday I allowed myself to think about something I refused to let myself to consider in too much detail during the primary season, for fear of getting my hopes up too high: What if Obama wins? More specifically, what are the implications for race in America then? Ironically, this scenario is what brought out the most ambivalence.

Obama’s candidacy has forced most Americans to acknowledge (with varying degrees of realism and accuracy) the fact that race is still a major issue in the country. But if Obama wins the presidency, I fear that the overwhelming response from many whites—including but not limited to his supporters—will be a sense that this latest progression means that the debt is paid. In other words, I think many whites will see Obama’s presidency as a sign that America has solved its racial problems, and will turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the realities and evidence of continuing, ongoing, systemic racism. A key part of the American story is a heavy reliance on the myth of meritocracy and equal opportunity. Part of how we rationalize extreme inequality is to point to the success stories of a few to obscure the systematic processes that preclude equal opportunity for the masses. What better opportunity for whites to do this than to point to the first Black president as evidence that America’s racial problems are now solved? If a Black man can be president, then why do we still need affirmative action?

The systemic nature of American racism and inequality, as well as the limits of the presidency, also constrain Obama’s opportunity to create genuine, lasting change—should he be willing to do so. The flip side of the myth of meritocracy is the idea that the social structure doesn’t matter, when in fact it does, and it matters enormously when it comes to matters of race. Obama may truly want to eliminate the divides that exist in America, but when it comes to the systemic processes that reproduce racial inequality (e.g., residential segregation, labor market discrimination, and the broader and more elusive white racial frame that shapes and legitimizes these), it’s hard to envision how one individual, no matter how well-intentioned, can change social structures that have been in place for centuries. Especially if many members of the racial majority group (and some in various minority groups) view that one individual’s presence as evidence that no such structural changes are necessary.

My biggest fear is that in a racially schizophrenic country like this one, the consequences of an Obama presidency would be an obstinacy and resistance to racial change that retards the progress that has transpired. I hope that my predictions and concerns are wrong, and that an Obama presidency would be the first indication of broad racial changes that are long past due in America. Then ambivalence takes over again, and I wonder if this is how many Blacks felt at the onset of Reconstruction, before Jim Crow.


  1. David Owen

    I think you are right that an Obama presidency would be added to the list of Oprah, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and P Diddy, among others, as evidence of the demise of race as a social factor. But on the other hand, the next five months will provide an exceptional opportunity to engage in the national discussion on race that Obama has called for. Race will inevitably be a topic of discussion in this election, and it is up to racial progressives (racial liberationists?) to engage vigorously in order to frame (or perhaps better: reframe) the discussions to account for structures of racial oppression. Moreover, there also surely will be plenty of expressions of racism and evidence of the continuing significance of race in the nation that will bubble to the surface and burst into the open during this presidential race. These expressions of racism need to be utilized as evidence for the continuing significance of race. Given how widespread I expect these expressions to be, it will be difficult to claim that they are only the work of some bad apples.

    So whatever the outcome of the election, this is a significant opportunity for many of us to press for the kind of cultural change that is necessary to achieve racial justice.

  2. TJ

    Adia, this is my fear, too. It’s already happening

    I brace myself, my anxiety, by formulating arguments that anticipate these charges.

    For instance, couldn’t Obama confront the fallacy of the post-racial by crediting his success to social programs that do affect opportunity?

    Obama’s mother was on welfare. And unfortunately, she’s even been called a “welfare queen”, ironically inciting the poor, black, and pregnant meme. But if it follows that this program helped Obama survive during hard times, then doesn’t Obama’s success justify such a targeted program?

    I don’t understand why it’s so credible that the successes of social programs are evidence for their abolishment. If Obama wins, he’ll still be the only president with phenotypically black ancestry the US has had in over 200 years.

  3. lou

    Adia, this has been a concern of mine as well. In my introduction to sociology course, one of my students proclaimed, “well it just goes to show that America no longer has a problem with race!” After cringing from this statement and pointing out some of the problems with it, I thought of the future comments of other students in my majority white classroom. In the classroom, how do we continue to talk about race when so many wish to see this Obama accomplishment as signifying something that is still far away?

  4. adia

    Lou, your last question is one with which I too have wrestled. What I try to do is to emphasize the institutional nature of racism and how in many cases, even benign collusion with the status quo reproduces racial inequality. (Shapiro’s 2004 “Hidden Costs of Being African American” is one great text that illustrates this.) This helps illustrate that one person’s successes don’t erase the institutional processes that preclude equality for most of us. It’s an imperfect solution, but I think as educators we’ll have to be very aware of emphasizing institutional structures in the face of one individual’s success, esp. with Obama’s nomination and in the long shot that he wins the presidency. In response to your student’s comment, though, I think the events that have surrounded Obama’s campaign show pretty clearly that America still very much has a problem w/ race.

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