E-race-ing Racism in Post-Racial America: Is a Transformative Moment Enough?

The willingness to believe in the possibilities of America is the social ideology underlying the inauguration of America’s first non-white President, but is it enough to usher in a post-racial America?

We stand at the brink of a new history — one whose name is more contested, whose identity is more ambiguous and whose future has hardly been conceived. The symbolic implications of race are transforming now, just as the symbolic implications of race were transformed with the Civil Rights Movement. Then, black was beautiful; black styles were cool and profitable; and black upward mobility was possible. Now, the congregation of an estimated one plus million people spanning every sector of the race-gender-age continuum on the National Mall in 20 degree weather on Inauguration Day is more than testament to the capacity of America to evolve beyond the lines which divide us. This transformative moment Obama
Creative Commons License photo credit: neil cummingsseems to be the embodiment of the much-heralded and often-scolded American Dream.

Yet, a closer examination of the contradictions underlying American realities show evidence of both progress and stagnation in e-race-ing the vestiges of racism. Post-racial ideologies by pundits of all colors and political persuasions imply that:

  • voting for a non-white man as President (or a political party that has associated itself with issues concerning non-whites as a collective) proves that America has moved beyond race.
  • the accomplishment of figures such as Oprah and Colin Powell is evidence that race no longer differentiates success for Americans.
  • an increase in levels of support for the extension of civil rights to previously-disenfranchised racial groups and in optimistic attitudes towards racial dynamics is a sign that America is fundamentally a land of opportunity.

If those who endorse post-racial ideologies are right, then even by their measures, post-racial America has not arrived.

First, the dominant racial group in our society as a collective still has not moved beyond race: 43% whites voted for Obama. (Still, in 33 states whites displayed a higher willingness to vote for Obama the Democrat than for Kerry the Democrat; in most of the Deep South, they were actually less willing to vote for Obama than for Kerry.) In only 13 states were whites more likely to vote for Obama than McCain. In fact voting patterns in Election 2008 show that if it were not for the growing political presence of non-whites (and the increasing racial polarization of political interests), there would be no transformative moment. While most whites did not vote for Obama, most non-whites did: 62% of Asians, 66% of self-identified others, 67% of Latin@s, and 95% of blacks voted for Obama.

Second, even now at the height of our hope, the statistics do not lie. Blacks and Latin@s, while visible in elite institutions, still make up less than 12% of all doctoral degrees conferred. Blacks have higher levels of mortality, send their children to less endowed schoolsand confront lower re-employment rates at the end of recessions than other racial/ethnic groups. Black men are fuel for the prison industrial complex as they trade paying income taxes for sitting behind the walls of jails on petty drug charges; black women bear the brunt of the spread of HIV/AIDS to previously uninfected populations. Black children face segregated spaces, neighborhood decline, and foreclosure at higher rates than other children.

Last, the philosophy of hope, while noble, still is not hand-in-hand with support for affirmative action and government interventionist policies that will redress inequalities. Instead of outright violence, the subtle subtexts of inferiority are etched into racial attitudes regarding the disloyalty of blacks, the motivational roots of inequality and the hypersensitivity of those who perceive discrimination.

Possibly, 40 or so years from now, a new generation of hopefuls will usher in the post-racial America many claim is here. However, today, we are still heirs to a society where civil liberties, opportunity structures, and social distresses are racialized.

As a land of immigrants, the “browning” of America has always been deeply American; thus, this “new” America is indeed the authentic perfect union. As much as President Obama is a sign of change, he is the living and breathing embodiment of tokenism. He represents the good blackone whose looks, speech, and pedigree do not threaten those in power. If nothing else, we must remember that this transformative moment was facilitated not by the erosion of the foundations of American racism, but by a deepening economic crisis, a wholesale disdain for anything Bush-related and a near-perfectly organized political campaign.

The idea currently circulating that we as a society could, with a series of elections, move beyond a system of domination that was built into our foundation before the Constitution was even written and by policies and public tolerances that debase the humanity of a whole portion of its members is naïve. Instead, we must embrace the multiracial society that has always been America. Neither a vote for nor the inauguration of the first non-white President of America can or did erase the racial divides that make fellow citizens strangers to each other.

Instead, I challenge this new generation of hopefuls to find ways to organize for racial equality — not just by one act at one transformative moment, but by acknowledging the very complexity of race in our everyday lives.

Note: Excerpts of this piece were taken from Despite transformative moment, racism still common in America” (Abigail A. Sewell) published in The Herald Times December 10, 2009: A9.

~ Abigail Sewell
PhD Candidate, Sociology
Indiana University