Could Obama Be Bad for Racial Progress?

By Paul Street
Author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics

Could Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the White House actually be less than a purely positive development for American race relations? Speaking from the left (which is not as uniformly pro-Obama as some commentators think), I think the answer is, “yes it could.” Nobody should doubt the historic nature of the fact that a black family has taken up residence in the White House. Still, here are five reasons to qualify racial-justice excitement about Obama’s racial identity.

First, a significant part of Obama's appeal to white America has had to do with the widespread Caucasian sense that Obama "isn't all that black." Whites' racial attitudes are less progressive than might be assumed when their willingness to embrace a black candidate or politician is conditioned by their requirement that his or her perceived "blackness" be qualified and suitable to white sensibilities – safe for white privilege.

Second, thanks in part to the fact that his black identity triggers white racial fears, Obama has gone to remarkable lengths to distance himself from the struggle against racism. Eagerly accommodating mainstream white attitudes, Obama has bent over backwards to embrace “race neutrality,” falsely proclaiming the essentially "past" nature of racial oppression and pointing strongly to blacks' personal and cultural responsibility for their disproportionate presence at the bottom of the nation's hierarchies.

Third, Obama's ascendancy reinforces the widespread majority white “post-Civil Rights” sentiment that racism no longer poses serious barriers to black advancement and equality. Last spring, the black comedienne Wanda Sykes quipped (on "Late Night with Conan O’Brien") that Obama being in the White House would mean that black people have "no more excuses" for their inferior status and “being in prison.” That’s no joke: “conservative" commentators have applauded the Obama phenomenon for putting an end to "obsolete" complaints about the "over" problem of racism.

The problem with such commentaries is that institutional racism remains alive and well in every area of American society, providing a critical part of the explanation (the supposed "excuse") for a savage racial wealth gap that grants the median black household seven cents on the white median household dollar. The appointment and election of a few select blacks to upper-echelon positions - the Supreme Court, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and even the presidency - does not change this deeply rooted societal reality. It can actually make that reality worse. The structures and practices of institutional race discrimination in the public and private sector are cloaked by rituals of Caucasian self-congratulation over white America's willingness to embrace "good" (non-threatening), elite, and "not-all-that" blacks like Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, and (now) Obama.

Fourth, Obama’s rise may have the unfortunate effect of de-mobilizing black Americans and encouraging them to over-identify with the federal government and the Democratic Party. As Frederick Douglass, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X knew, racial and other forms of social progress are won through struggle and confrontation, not through subordination to existing institutions. During the campaign, Obama himself repeatedly said that “change comes from the bottom up, not the top down.” It would be a shame if his presidency had had a pacifying impact on black Americans, who have long been in the forefront of the fight for racial, social, economic, and international justice and who are particularly vulnerable to job and home losses and rising poverty during current “Great Recession.”

Fifth, the heavily Wall Street-connected Obama’s determination to continue and indeed expand giant taxpayer bailouts of the very leading financial and insurance firms that drove the economy over the cliff can hardly be expected to improve racial attitudes among working class whites. Many in the nation’s white working-class majority have long been led to ironically identify the noble Civil Rights cause of racial equality with upper-class “liberal elitism.” The first black president’s massive government giveaway to the financial elite seems like to deepen that unfortunate identification.

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** Paul Street is the author of Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefied, 2007), and, most recently, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics. **