Bill Maxwell

The myth of a postracial America

Now, at the end of 2010 — the halfway point of Barack Obama's first term as president — much of America has been forced back down to planet Earth. This is a good time to revisit the fantasies that Obama was "postracial" and that his presidency would gloriously usher in a new United States of America where race didn't matter.

Until reality caught up, postracialism was the new American gospel for many. The hope was that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of that day when his four children "will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character" finally would materialize.

Obama, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black Kenyan father, would bring all that. It all seems so long ago. What happened? Who started and promoted this nonsense? Why don't we still hear or read about the mirage of postracialism? Where have the disciples gone?

I never believed any of the postracial, "transcendent" narrative, and I said so from the beginning. I believed then and still believe that racial polarization would remain or even widen with the coming of Obama. How could anyone, black or white, born and brought up in the United States believe that race would be different? I thought people should vote for Obama because he would be a better president than John McCain. At the very least, he would be a competent leader who would care about the greater good.

From all indications, Obama never publicly said he was postracial, but the young Illinois senator often implied as much in universal terms. To rapt audiences in 2004, for example, when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention and to U.S. television land, Obama said: "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America; there's the United States of America." During his 2008 presidential campaign speeches, candidate Obama regularly intoned: "We are not a collection of red states and blues states. We are the United States of America."

It was great stuff on the stump, resonating with millions of voters and would-be voters, especially with college students heading to the polls for the first time.

And don't forget the power of that prime-time description of Obama served up by Joe Biden, himself a candidate during the 2008 presidential campaign: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Nothing racial there, a description that cast Obama as being far different from blacks such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Julian Bond and others who never shy away from race issues.

Not long after Obama took office, however, the soaring rhetoric no longer held sway as race openly returned with a vengeance. Many whites, the "birthers" in particular, are so angry that a black man is in the White House, they continue to challenge Obama to prove he is a natural-born American citizen. Their street demonstrations have come with virulent racial epithets and crude placards.

Former President Jimmy Carter, alluding to the attacks on Obama, told students at Emory University last year that he believes race is a huge problem for the nation's first black president: "I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African-American. It's a racist attitude."

Then, the tea party entered the fray with its attacks against Obama. Because some of the movement members' language was laced with racism, the NAACP declared in a report released in October that the tea party was "permeated with concerns about race" and that some of its affiliates "have given platform to anti-Semites, racists and bigots."

Now comes a must-read new book from the University of Chicago Press, Obama's Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America, by Michael Tesler and David O. Sears, showing that the 2008 election was more polarized by racial attitudes than any other presidential election. The authors argue that there were two distinct sides to this racial divide: resentful opposition to and racially liberal support for Obama. No postracialism in that equation.

In the end, the myth of Obama's postracialism is just that — a myth. Race is a natural fact of life in America. It always will be. We cannot wish or dream it away. As I said, I see no evidence that Obama ever referred to himself as being postracial. His mistake was standing by uncritically, letting others say he was postracial. This strategy worked on the stump, but it does not work in the real world of governing as president.

I'm certain that if nothing else, Obama now knows that there are red states and blue states and white blocs and black blocs and Latino blocs and Asian blocs in the United States of America.

The myth of a postracial America 11/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 26, 2010 5:22pm]

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