The Obama Syndrome- Racism is Over- Right?
"I'm not a racist, but...." Sure sign that something racist is about to be spoken.
On November 4,2008, Illinois senator Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Obama was the first black man (actually half-black with a white mother) to be elected to the highest office in the country, and his ascension to the presidency was seen as a huge game-changer in race relations. Running on a platform of hope and change, Obama won 95% of the black vote and 43% of the white vote- enough to claim victory and a significant mandate.
But in a tribal nation deeply divided by race, this milestone may have made things worse in some ways. Obama's election produced a huge backlash, embodied by the Tea Party, that was made up mostly of white Americans, especially non-college educated Americans who had previously supported the Democratic party. Democrats got demolished in the 2010 election, and thanks to a census that year, Republicans were able to gerrymander districts that would produce victories for the entire decade.
What's going on here? Why does the existence of someone of a different race in positions of wealth and power bother so many? While the existence of racism is condemned by almost everybody in theory, why does it prosper so much in practice? Why does it even matter in the post-Obama age?
Racism has been around forever. It's reared its ugly head on every continent all through history. Humans have a strong tribal instinct, and skin color has been the default method of grouping human beings for jobs, neighborhoods, and just about everything else. The golden age of racism ran from about 1400 to 1950, when White Europeans figured out a way to subjugate other races and organize entire nations and economies around white privilege. But it all started to change in the middle of the 20th century here in America.
Obama's election was the last in a long string of firsts- first negro baseball player, first black Oscar winner, or first African American woman talk show host. Each first broke down barriers and cleared the way for others to follow. There are few professions that remain all-white or all-male, and that's a good thing. In a society that claims to honor effort, talent, and merit, it seems wasteful to discount entire groups of people. But the problem of racism remains. It just has had to go underground and use code words to unite those who still think they deserve preferential treatment and status because of the color of their skin.
The big problem that still empowers racism is something called the availability bias. People are biased towards what they see in their immediate environment. They assume that it reflects the reality for everybody. Many of today's racists, especially those in rural areas, are not exposed to that many people of color due to neighborhood segregation. Their only exposure is through the media, which depicts black people in only two ways- as criminals and welfare queens, or as rich and entitled celebrities like Oprah, Will Smith, Kanye West, Beyonce, and Barack Hussein Obama. Media and the internet, especially of the conservative variety, play up these differences to their white audiences. The result is understandable- fear and envy. Envy is especially powerful when you consider how cruel the economy has been to much of middle-America. Seeing anyone doing better than you is hard when your family is struggling, but seeing groups you've been taught are inferior living in the White House or Beverly Hills causes envy bordering on rage.
There's something called the "black friend" defense that racists tell themselves and others to prove that they aren't racist. If they have a black co-worker, neighbor, or classmate who they are civil to, and possibly even friendly with, they see that as proof of their non-racism. Oddly, that feeling of virtue seems to give some people license to act like a racist in most of their other activities. The black friend has become a human being and they don't see them as black, (usually because the black friend has had to hold back a lot of their feelings and opinions with white people). Meanwhile, the media stereotypes make it perfectly honorable to vote for candidates who lean into white grievance, like Donald Trump. There are many people who voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and I still can't wrap my head around that one.
I don't begrudge Obama, Oprah, Jay-Z, or Lebron James their fame and fortune. Their success has inspired countless others to aspire to greater things, and that's good. The backlash to their popularity has driven white grievance politics, which is in its last throws but still quite powerful. When you look at how things were back in 1950, we've come a long way. But in the 2020's, black Americans still stand at a stunning disadvantage - in money, education, policing, housing, health care, and many more areas. We've got a long, long way to go before racism isn't one of the key motivating forces that it's always been.
The continuing integration of American society scares many and inspires more. You can see the fall of overt racism in the increasing diversity found almost everywhere in popular culture. Nearly 10% of Americans identify as mixed race according to the latest US Census. Usage of the N word, the most vile symbol of contempt for black people, is down 75% since 2000 according to Google Trends. While attitudes of the Baby Boomers are pretty much set, those of Millennials and later generations are evolving and multi-racial. Things are headed in the right direction, if very slowly.
*Disclaimer. I am white. I have no clue what it's like to be any other race and have enjoyed white privilege without even thinking about it. That said, the only way for white people to "get" racism is to hear the stories and feel empathy for those who've experienced it. Saying "I don't see color" is a cowardly way to avoid the difficult realities of the past. Saying "I have a black friend" doesn't give one permission to resent, fear, or envy an entire racial group. And claiming "I voted for Obama so I can't be racist" is just plain stupid. It's a complicated issue and one that will play out in the decades ahead. We are all humans and we need each other, and believing only what you see in mass media or online is a ticket to Fantasyland.