In the afterglow of Barack Obama’s election the temptation to make hasty generalizations regarding the present and the future of race in the U.S. has proven irresistible. The film director Michael Moore, for example, found the election signaled the utter transformation of a nation “founded in genocide and built on the backs of slaves.” The Obama vote showed to Moore and to many that the “flame of hate,” already now reduced to a minority position, was sure to “fizzle in our lifetime.”
However much they smarted from Republican defeats, conservatives likewise celebrated that Obama’s victory put paid the charges that the U.S. was a racially discriminatory society. Indeed from Obama’s first primary successes the Wall Street Journal editorially heralded his victories as a triumph for the nation, even while opposing his election. From the left or the right, such triumphalism postpones asking good questions about just what changed, and what did not.
Indeed in stark contrast to pleasant narratives of progress, white family wealth in the U.S. is nine times that of African American family wealth and black young men are seven times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. The diseases of the poor in the U.S. are the diseases of poor people of color. 75 percent of all active tuberculosis cases afflict them. In Obama’s home state of Illinois, a majority of HIV-AIDS cases occur among African Americans. Three in ten black and Latino children live in poverty, triple the white child poverty rate.
To think more precisely about the coexistence in the U.S. of such stark and deadly racial inequalities with the historic triumph of an African American presidential candidate requires that we recognize that racism is more than one thing and that we specify what has changed. The view that Obama heralds the end of race-thinking in the U.S. rests on a particular definition of racism, one that currently very much holds sway in U.S. politics and popular culture. Racism turns, on this view, on bad but disappearing individual attitudes, of the sort that can be measured by whether many or few voters act on those attitudes on election day, or even by the ratings among whites of Oprah Winfrey’s television shows or the sales of products Tiger Woods endorses. Deep structural inequalities may be considered unfortunate, but race is personal.
The election results do measure a growth of more liberal personal racial attitudes among whites, though with some complexities. Overwhelming majorities and high turnouts among Black and Latino voters—40 per cent of all new voters came from those populations—turned the election. McCain won the white vote, but barely, with Obama apparently slightly outpolling the 2004 Democratic candidate, John Kerry, among whites. Some of that success did not coincide at all with racial tolerance, with one poll showing Obama getting 20 per cent of votes from whites giving racist responses to polling questions on personal attitudes. Disasters abroad and the economic collapses at home ensured that no votes were simply “racial.”
Even so, the election of Obama expressed monumental change among white voters in two ways. First, the Republican nods, winks and more open appeals to white voters along racial lines did not work this time around. The desperate attempts to connect the subprime mortgage crisis to alleged “favoritism” to minority borrowers proved too ridiculous to fly. The insistent efforts to brand Obama “not one of us”—playing on his name and his alleged sympathy for Islam—fell equally flat. Secondly white young people not only voted in great numbers for Obama but swelled the energy and numbers of his crowds.
Any analysis which responds to the “everything has changed” extravagances of Michael Moore and the Wall Street Journal by sourly holding that “nothing has changed” regarding race is therefore partial and wrong. Obama’s candidacy embodied and expressed much of what has challenged white supremacy since the 1960s: immigration by people of color, significant increases in racial intermarriage and transracial adoptions, the rise of a cosmopolitan successful new black middle class, and the critically important fact that for a half-century now African American social movements have best symbolized for the nation the possibility of change, a theme which became Obama’s watchword. My recent How Race Survived U.S. History would add that the tremendous influence of African and Latino popular culture, usually in the most highly marketed forms, leaves race seeming more and more a matter of choice and even taste to white young people who came to prefer Obama and his style.
However, to chart such changes is also to note their limitations. Race is not a matter of choice for poor people of color in the U.S., who are often “illegal” in terms of immigration status or “in the system” of incarceration and its aftermath. Moreover, the politics of style which attracted white voters to Obama would have been greatly strained if his campaign also included straightforward plans to redress racial inequalities. The resonances of freedom movements by people of color inspired the Obama campaign, but those movements are in considerable disarray. The election therefore told us critical but by no means simple things about the present and future of race in the U.S.