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Obama and a Referendum on Race

Colorlines, Commentary, Andrew Grant-Thomas Posted: Jan 21, 2009

On the morning of Tuesday, January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first black president in the 232-year history of the United States. He won 69 million votes, more than any candidate ever has. As Sen. John McCain graciously noted in his concession speech, given the deep and divisive history of race in the United States, that such an enormous coalition could coalesce around the candidacy of a black man is cause for celebration.

Some public figures are arguing that Obamas victory proves race no longer plays a meaningful role in determining who gets what in this country.

Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett declared, I'll tell you one thing [Obamas win] meansyou don't take any excuses anymore from anybody who says, The deck is stacked. I can't do anything. There's so much in-built this and that.'

Coming from the man who suggested just two years ago that aborting every black baby in this country would be one sure way to reduce the crime rate, Bennetts assertion is painfully ironic. More to the point, the mistaken conclusion Bennett draws from Obamas achievementin effect, that we have become a post-racial societyis one we can expect to hear echoed repeatedly in the months ahead.

This conclusion reflects two crucial problems in how many of us think about race and racism.

First, the post-racialism claim builds on the all-or-nothing approach Americans often take to making racial judgments. So President Bushs tepid response to Hurricane Katrina revealed him to be a racist, but then his selection of several people of color to prominent cabinet posts proved that he is not a racist. Either Obamas unprecedented achievement affirms what the Wall Street Journal calls the myth of racism or it is completely anomalous. Too often, we insist that race means everything or nothing.

For voters in the 2008 presidential election, the more plausible conclusion is that race meant something, but not everything.

Racial appeals were implicit in the repeated attempts to identify Obama as a Muslim and link him to terrorists. They were explicit in the wide range of crudely racist images and references especially prominent online. Such appeals found receptive audiences in a number of communities. However, at the end of the day, race and racial anxieties did not trump the exigencies of war, peace and economic crisis.

Second, the post-racial claim reflects most Americans understanding of racism exclusively as a matter of interpersonal discrimination. By this logic, if a candidate of color can draw enough support from white and other Americans to reach the pinnacle of U.S. public life, then racism must be dead or close enough.

But even if interpersonal racism were dead and buried, racial inequality would persist.

Because Americans generally take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we often fail to appreciate the work done by institutions and structures that are racially inequitable. But, in fact, all societies feature institutional arrangements that create and distribute benefits, burdens and interests in society. This often has nothing to do with our conscious intentions.

Consider the example of college admissions. Grades earned by high school students in Advanced Placement (AP) and other college-prep courses may be the single most influential factor in admissions decisions (often more important than overall GPA, class rank, or test scores, and far more important than diversity considerations). In a society where white students are much more likely than black and Latino students to attend high schools that offer such courses, and offer more of them, weighing AP performance heavily in admissions decisions is racially inequitable.

We dont need to conjure up racist admissions officers to get this outcome.

Barack Obamas win is hugely important for both substantive and symbolic reasons. We have reason to hope that his administration will chart a domestic and foreign policy course that diverges dramatically and productively from the one taken by the current administration. His example, and those of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, may well inspire more girls, women, and people of color to seek positions of public leadership. Now, the prospect of our first Latino, Asian American or Native American president, or of a second black president, is plausible. The Obama phenomenon confirms that we have come far since the Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson presidential runs in the 1970s and 1980s while holding out the possibility of further progressive movement in our racial culture.

By bestowing a false post-racial status on ourselves, we ignore the distance we have yet to travel to make this country truly a land of equal opportunity for all, regardless of racial identity. Barack Obama may prove willing and able to lead the way on the next stage of the journey, but he cant get us there by himself.

Andrew Grant-Thomas is deputy director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.

Related Articles:

In Obama We Have Someone Who Will Listen To Us

This Man Is God-sent, Says 83-Year-Old Civil Rights Vet

The Promise of Change Starts from Within

Filipinos Celebrate Inaugural, Ask Obama For Veterans Equity

Immigrant Worker at Latino Inaugural Ball Shares Hopes for Obama Era

Our Man Obama -- The Post-Imperial Presidency

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