Last night marked the final time President Obama will address the nation as its commander-in-chief, an event signaling the beginning of the end of the “Obama era.” Now may be as good a time as any to reflect on what we were thinking when the first black president of America took office.
For many, his election to the White House meant that the country was now well on its way to “post-racialism.”
Once we embraced change
Back in 2008, it seemed as though a coalition of people of color, progressive whites and young people had finally triumphed. Even if there was an initial backlash on the part of some skeptical whites, we looked with hope toward scholarship that showed, in time, black executives eventually won over enough of their constituents to effectively govern.
By well into Obama’s second term – in other words, now – went the thinking back then, the country should find itself beyond race. Obama’s presence in the Oval Office, and his demonstrated competence as the nation’s chief executive, would make whites more comfortable with blacks. As a result, racism would begin to fade away, eventually disappearing.
It hasn’t happened.
Instead, the racial climate during Obama’s watch has become even more divisive. Seven years into his presidency, we’ve witnessed one race-related tragedy after another. The murder of Trayvon Martin was followed by the Charleston massacre, and the deaths of black folks at the hands of white police officers in Illinois, Ohio, New York, South Carolina and Texas.
Further, as the current GOP race makes plain, race and racism aren’t confined to the black-white paradigm.
Race is also part of the discussion around immigration, as undocumented Latino immigrants are often derided by the GOP as criminals. Likewise, in the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, Muslims have come under Republican fire, as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz – and GOP rank and file – support banning their entry into the United States.
Why the rancor?
What accounts for the racial rancor during Obama’s watch?
First, Obama’s election served as a “wake-up” call for the 20 percent of the electorate who appears driven by fear, anxiety and anger. To them, Obama’s election is associated with what they believe is America’s decline. The anger and anxiety over this imagined diminution of America suggests why some feel the need to “take their country back.”
Further, the election of Obama, for many on the hard right, validates their belief that racism is a red herring. In other words, the election of Obama is “proof” that racism is a thing of the past. This leads the hard right to believe that policies like affirmative action aimed at the mitigation of racism are no longer needed.
Why it matters
Addressing racism is important. However, mitigating the effects of racism is even more important. As University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson argues, racism is at the root of many kinds of inequalities. In turn, inequality undermines democracy because democracy demands informed, engaged citizens.
In fact, the need to produce such citizens informed the rationale on which the Warren Court based its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court found that segregation affected the intellectual development of black children.
Racism can also weaken democracy through political inequality. Thanks to Jim Crow laws passed at the state level after the end of slavery, blacks in the former Confederate South had no political voice. In the absence of political representation, black southerners continued to be victimized by social and economic inequality.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 remedied this for a time. However, the voting rights of people of color are, once again, under siege.
At the state level, GOP-controlled state houses continue to attempt to suppress the vote of constituencies that generally support racial justice. For instance, since 2010, 21 states have passed legislation that increased the burden on people of color wishing to vote.
At the federal level, the Supreme Court added its considerable influence to the suppression of voting rights. In the 2013 case Holder v. Shelby County, the Voting Rights Act took a big hit, releasing formerly covered jurisdictions from federal oversight of their voting rules.
This cleared the way for Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas to begin silencing communities of color through voter ID laws, laws that would have been considered illegal were they subject to “preclearance” with the Department of Justice.
What happens next
Ironically, prospects for racial justice will likely take a turn for the worse after Obama’s departure. Even with Obama off the ballot, the reactionary right will continue to mobilize thanks to changing demographics of the United States. By 2050, the U.S. will be a majority-minority country. If the “one person, one vote” principle applies, this suggests that more people of color will gain representation, putting whites at a disadvantage. The anxiety associated with the thought of “losing their country” will persuade the right wing of the GOP to engage this perceived threat.
The GOP knows that many of its voters are motivated by racism, whether it’s aimed at the derogation of illegal immigrants or the demonization of Middle Easterners. How else can we explain Donald Trump’s dominance in the polls so far? The anxiety around race is coupled with intense political interest and engagement.
Obama’s absence from the ballot will further hurt Democrats because black voters aren’t likely to turn out and vote at the same levels as they did in 2008 and 2012. Hillary Clinton is likely to ultimately win, but she will face resistance similar to that of her predecessor. Among other factors, including her gender, the hard right will refuse to cooperate with her agenda given her progressive position on racialized issues such as Black Lives Matter and comprehensive immigration reform.
For all of Obama’s hopefulness in his final State of the Union address, the country will remain divided for the foreseeable future over race and difference.
Continued demographic change in concert with the erosion of political equality all but guarantees the continuing significance of race and racism in America. Hope and change, it seems, are better suited for fairy tales, not the so-called “city on the hill.”