Still Waiting for a ‘Post-Racial’ America

Murmurs of a possibly “post-racial” America began during the presidential primaries. Before Election Day ended, pundits were quick to officially declare that we, as a nation, had at last overcome. For them, the fact that Barack Obama will become the 44th president of the United States proves that if an individual works hard enough, she or he can be anything, even the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.

On November 4, Nebraska joined California, Michigan, and Washington as yet another state that voted for a constitutional measure that will ban affirmative action programs in the state. Apparently, many people believe that if a man of color can hold the highest office in the land, then race no longer matters and affirmative action isn’t needed anymore. But are we entering an era where race and racism are no longer barriers to advancement?

The simple answer is “no.” The United States is decidedly not yet “post-racial.” Just as sexism remained a persistent issue in nations that had already elected a female prime minister (Pakistan, India, Israel, and Great Britain, among others) so too can racism exist in abundance in the United States, despite Obama’s electoral success.

Let’s examine the facts: Obama has received more death threats than any other president-elect in recorded history, many of them tinged with racial epithets. In this post-election period, second graders in Idaho are comfortable chanting “Assassinate Obama” on their school bus. Increasingly, black effigies are being hung and more crosses are being burned throughout the South. It’s time to remember that 1) only a bit more than half of the nation voted for the black man with Obama winning 52.4 percent of the popular vote, and 2) race continues to play a large role in the American psyche.

While we pat ourselves on our collective back for looking beyond race in the voting booth, we also can’t forget that one third of all African-American children live in poverty. Or that, for the bulk of the African-American community, statistical measures on rates of housing, employment, and income aren’t far removed from their 1960s levels. To deny the existence of racial discrepancies in education, income, health care, criminal justice enforcement, and wealth is to deny the racial reality that didn’t change on November 4, 2008. Symbolic change isn’t substantive change.

But this isn’t what many Americans want to hear. After all, we have been mesmerized by Obama’s talk of a unified nation and we’re all set to clasp hands and sing “Kumbaya” on inauguration day. Many Americans see our election of a man of African descent as a sign that we’re one big happy family. But, like the horrors of incest that fester even when not discussed, we live with dysfunctional family secrets of past and current racial prejudice and violence. And, Obama — much like the parent who knows of the abuse but is attempting to keep the family together — brokered a deal. He often dodges the issue of race. Is he trying to avoid making whites feel guilty about past racial indiscretions if they, in turn, forget about race while voting?

Of course, we can always choose to stay in denial and move forward together. The multicultural celebrations in Chicago’s Grant Park and around the world attest to the fact that we hunger for hope and change. Over the next four (or perhaps eight) years, Obama will attempt to heal the American racial family, but it remains unclear how much we will honestly talk and act upon the pain of our collective past and present.

Distributed by Minuteman Media.

Joy Zarembka is the operations director of the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of The Pigment of Your Imagination: Mixed Race in a Global Society.