Whatever you think of Barack Obama’s presidency, the first African American to hold the highest office in the land has dramatically changed the way we view race in our country–or, at least, what it is acceptable to say about race in public.
As a people who believe that all humans are made in the image of God, that before Christ there is no distinction between races, that part of the mission of ambassadors for Christ is to act as reconcilers between people, and that we are called to care for the poor and needy and oppressed, Christians have a deep responsibility to seek racial reconciliation, not just in our churches (but especially there), but also our neighborhoods and country. And given the history of racism in our country and the ways in which our Faith was abused to justify it–and still is in some corners (See: Kinism–better yet, don’t)–we have a unique calling to live in and promote peace with our neighbors. And four years after Obama’s election, I think there’s a lot for us to consider and reconsider regarding the current state of race relations in America.
There’s good reason to believe that America is more divided over race today than it was the day Obama took office. At that time, many tried to herald his election as the beginning of a post-racial America. After all, we had outlawed slavery, given minorities the vote, and ended Jim Crow laws. In fact, we were so sensitive to racial issues that we had gone to the opposite extreme, according to some. We were so worried about not racially discriminating against black people that we began to discriminate against whites in retaliation. But, by electing Obama, we proved to the world that we were so over that whole racism thing.
But over the last four years it quickly became clear that things weren’t getting better. Obama used his race to sympathize with Trayvon Martin’s parents, and people took offense as I wrote about previously. And he spoke out in defense of Henry Louis Gates when he was arrested by a white police officer. And black people started to act out across the country, according to some. They became more dependent on government aid. And there were reports of black mob violence against whites going unreported by the Main Stream Media*. Rather than heal our racial divide, Obama supporters’ constant use of the race card seemed to create significantly more conflict between white and black people. And a study has provided evidence for escalated conflict.
The AP, in conjunction with some actual researchers, studied racial prejudice in the US over the last four years. They looked at explicit and implicit racism and found some troubling signs:
In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.
Add to this study other recent research and reports that suggest that whites believe they suffer more racial discrimination than black people and it is clear that race relations in the United States are poor and have gotten worse during Obama’s presidency. And with his reelection, we should question if things might digress further.
I’d like to suggest that the rise in racial conflict during Obama’s presidency is actually a good and necessary thing, and that much of the anger over this issue stems from deeply flawed understandings of race and history. Specifically, I reject the claim by some that Obama has divided our nation across race lines. In fact, I’d say that for the first Black President, he’s basically ignored racial issues entirely. Rather, I suspect that the rise in anti-black attitudes can be primarily attributed to three factors: a misguided and simplistic view that “racism” is an issue of the past and therefore any cry of “racism” should be treated with skepticism or derision, the vileness of American politics which encourages voters to hate politicians, and a fringe-conservative campaign which portrayed black people as lazy people who would vote for Obama to keep the free stuff coming. Rather than increase racial prejudice, I believe the Obama presidency has revealed how far we still have to go.
The Destructive Myth of a Post-Racial America
When President Obama claimed that Trayvon Martin could have been his own son, he brought on a wave of criticism from conservatives who felt that the president should represent all people equally. The objection, as I understand it, was that Obama was publicly acknowledging his blackness and pointing out that his race still mattered–as a black father, he could empathize in a unique way with other black parents. This was not the black president we elected in 2008.
We wanted a president who would usher in a post-racial society, but what we needed was one who would usher in a post-racist society. There is no such thing as a “post-racial” society, because it would require us to be disembodied and torn from history. I will always be caucasian of European ancestry whether I mark “White” on a job application or not. If you are the descendent of an African American slave, you wouldn’t suddenly not have that heritage if I promised to not see you as “black.” Our history and our genetics don’t determine our fate or define our worth, but they do shape our identities. That is part of what it means to be human.
So when we talk about the virtues of a “post-racial” society, we are describing a myth. To be “post-racial” in this sense is to collapse all differences into one generic humanity with the same history and environment and experience, which can only be done by ignoring the reality of contemporary prejudice. A “post-racial” society is not a post-racist one, in fact, it can only exist this side of paradise (if ever) as a silently racist society.
As long as Obama didn’t mention race, didn’t treat it as a current problem, we were fine with having a black president. But what was unacceptable was a president who would claim that racism was still a real and serious issue in our country. And when he empathized with the Martins, he implied that this wasn’t a post-racial society.
Underlying this line of thinking is this naive and dangerous idea that America is far enough past racism that we ought to be “post-racial”–meaning that we ought to be able to stop talking about race as a significant and contemporary problem. We want to be able to have “white pride” and praise the confederacy and southern tradition without being accused of racism or unintentionally offending someone. We want an end of affirmative action and a moratorium on evocations of the history of “slavery,” because all races were enslaved at one point and America outlawed slavery a long, long time ago. According to this view, in other words, the path to racial reconciliation is paved with silence over past atrocities and current wrongs–and by publicly noting a current wrong (the reality the black parents in American today still reasonably fear that their children will suffer for being black), President Obama disrupted our reconciliation.
But the reality is that racism is alive and well in America, as I have written about previously:
An incredible percentage of the black male population of the US is incarcerated.
According to one study, white men make 11% more hourly than black men, even when you take factors like education into consideration.
As if that weren’t bad enough, black unemployment is usually around twice white unemployment. Yeah, you read that right. Think 8% unemployment sounds bad? Try 16%.
Have a traditionally black name? It could be harder to find a job.
Are you a black woman? You will probably not get married, in part because many eligible black men are in jail.
Young black man in New York? You’re probably going to get stopped and frisked by the police. Try not to look suspicious. And remember to respect and trust the police.
Our sense of History as Americans also contributes to this naive belief. It’s well known that Americans suffer from the peculiar delusion that ancient history refers to something that occurred 300 years ago. To Europeans, our “ancient” buildings and traditions and documents are from the very recent past. Americans have a very poor sense of historical time, and nowhere is this more evident in our own time than in our perception of racial history.
Many of us act as if slavery and socially accepted and government sanctioned racism was a thing of ancient history, but let’s put this in perspective:
The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery 147 years ago, which just happens to be almost exactly within two lifespans of the average African American (73.6). The “last proven African American slaves living in the United States” died in 1948. If you are over the age of 70, you could have met and talked with a woman who lived as a legal slave in our country.
It wasn’t until 1964 that Jim Crow Laws were effectively ended by the Civil Rights Act. Black Americans over the age of 50 lived through a period when our government required them to live separately from us, as inferiors. Whatever great strides we might have made in our country, as long as State-mandated racism was occurring less than a lifetime ago, we simply cannot talk about a “post-racial” society. And we can be confident that the effects of that bigotry are still reverberating through our country and will continue for some time.
The expectation that “race” is no longer a legitimate issue in our country; that we can “move on”; that black people should stop “blaming” racism; that black children are born having the same essential opportunities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as others; that we should all see each other as identically race-less is dangerous. It hides the reality of modern racism. It prevents us from confronting and overcoming this racism. And it sets up unreasonable expectations for our society, so that when a tragedy happens that forces us to acknowledge the continued presence of racism, and our president speaks out on this tragedy, we lash out in frustration and anger that our expectations about a “post-racial” society were not met.
Hating the President and the Color of His Skin
By the time George W. Bush left office in 2009, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins had made New Atheism into a New York Times Best Seller’s List success. While some of their success certainly came from their great skills as writers and, for the latter two, their authoritative British accents, it has always seemed to me that the rise of New Atheism could be largely attributed to George W. Bush’s evocation of Christianity to justify what came to be seen by many Americans as horrible political decisions, like when he allegedly said that God told him to invade Iraq. Bush was not merely a Christian president (as they all have claimed to be), but a very vocal evangelical Christian, and one who was warmly welcomed by other evangelicals as such. So as many Americans began to hate him, it seemed natural for them to also turn that hatred towards the cultural force he so identified with and which had helped him maintain power: evangelical Christians.
Just as evangelical Christianity became the target for vitriol during Bush’s second term because of the unpopular president’s close identification with the faith, I believe that racial prejudice against black people has risen in the last four years in part due to a transference of hate that conservatives have felt toward Obama. Of course, I can’t begin to offer the kind of empirical psychological/sociological evidence needed to prove this claim, but I do think that it is reasonable and at least circumstantially evident.
As Obama’s first term came to an end, the anti-Obama rhetoric on the far right became increasingly explicit in its racism. It was not uncommon to see some fringe conservatives sharing photos mocking the size of the First Lady’s butt, describing her as “crass” in comparison to Ann Romney, or commenting on her “ghetto” style of dress–the implication being that she was too black to have such a position of honor. Similar thinly-veiled bigotry could be seen in some fringe attacks against the President. Mia Moody, a professor of Journalism and Media Arts at Baylor University, has done an amazing job studying the use of social media to spread racist messages about the Obamas. Here are her findings:
Although historical stereotypes focusing on diet and blackface have all but disappeared from mainstream television shows and movies, they have resurfaced in new media representations. Facebook hate group portrayals incorporate negative viewpoints of black people and their perceived roles in society that storytellers have used for generations. Findings demonstrate that historical representations of the group are still strong and have an impact on modern portrayals.
Similarly, Facebook users play up shallow, patriarchal representations of Mrs. Obama, focusing on her femininity, appearance and personality. Facebook members who have a hard time accepting a black woman in the role of first lady of the United States attempt to explain the occurrence in a recognizable package by focusing on physical appearance instead of her capabilities. From a patriarchal viewpoint, sexist rhetoric implies although she is in a prominent position; she is not important to mainstream society because she “looks like a man” and does not fit their ideal of a first lady. This “us” versus “them” imagery found in Facebook portrayals suggests a step backwards in civil rights gains.
While it is entirely possible that this prejudice existed prior to Obama’s election, I suspect that in many cases our modern political rhetoric–which encourages incendiary, hateful, inhuman attacks on all political figures–naturally led to the racial bigotry; it is only a small step from hating someone to hating everything about him or her, including race. Once we decide that it is socially and morally acceptable to mock, dehumanize, and hate politicians in public, it is very difficult to draw some line at racism. Once we choose not to love them as our neighbors, made in the Image of God, there is nothing keeping us from producing all kinds of bigotry.
Unfortunately, the specific kind of hateful rhetoric Obama has been subject to because of his race compounds our country’s racial problems. As Dr. Moody says, “This ‘us’ versus ‘them’ imagery found in Facebook portrayals suggests a step backwards in civil rights gains.”
The Lazy Coon wants an Obama Phone
Perhaps the most harmful racial narrative of this election season has been that Obama won reelection because lazy black people wanted more free handouts. Around 90% of black people voted for Obama in November, which fed right into the extremist theory that the 2012 elections constituted a take over of our country by minorities. Whether or not you buy Think Progress‘s argument about this narrative’s popularity amongst conservatives, you probably witnessed some example of this narrative this year.The most notable recent example was the infamous “Obama Phone” video. I highly recommend the Atlantic’s articulate explanation of why this video was racist. Here’s their summary, but it’s worth reading their original post and their response to the flood of commenters who were angered that anyone would call the video racist:
“Because a video of a black woman with bad teeth and a poor grasp of the history of the Universal Service Fund proves that Democrats are stupid, lazy, and, oh, black. ‘That is a real Obama voter.’ We say, that’s racist.”
What Elspeth Reeve is getting at in this post is that the video played perfectly into a vicious historical black stereotype; specifically, the “Coon”:
The coon caricature is one of the most insulting of all anti-black caricatures. The name itself, an abbreviation of raccoon, is dehumanizing. . . [T]he coon was portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, buffoon. . . . The coon acted childish, but he was an adult; albeit a good-for-little adult. . . .The coon, although he often worked as a servant, was not happy with his status. He was, simply, too lazy or too cynical to attempt to change his lowly position. (Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology, Ferris State University)
The “coon” stereotype is nothing new, but what is disturbing is to see how it was evoked, subtly, but nevertheless evoked, in the political rhetoric of some on the far right–even some Christians I know. What makes this so powerful is that the stereotype was used to attack what many perceive to be an existential threat to our country and our faith: Barack Obama and his followers.
In other words, what should alarm us is not that the stereotype is still around, but that it was used so vocally in such a central and essential public discourse in our society: the presidential elections. My fear is that by appealing to the “coon” stereotype, we make it a bit more socially acceptable to be racist.
The Importance of a Racial Society
As bad as race relations have become in the last four years, I’d like to suggest that we need this crisis in order to continue growing, healing, and reconciling. For many Americans, racial discrimination had been identified, condemned, and ended, and although it might come up every now and again in the form of white supremacy, we felt as if was not a significant problem for our time. But that is the insidious nature of racism; it’s quite possible to be conceptually opposed to all forms of bigotry while being complicit with them in practice–particularly when you consider factors like confirmation bias. We stand no chance of addressing our hateful thinking if we cannot identify and talk about it in public. Regrettably, the right has largely ceded discussions of racism to the left, so that it is considered “politically correct” (which is ironically politically incorrect to conservatives) to acknowledge the seriousness of racism in our society.
This presidency has created the perfect conditions for America to begin rooting out racism by acknowledging and challenging it. The tremendous rise of social media has encouraged people to voice prejudices which would otherwise been restricted to private settings. The social nature of these sites has provided widespread support for prejudicial rhetoric from a global community of likeminded people. Obama’s race forces us to face our flawed expectations about a post-racial society and the naive view of history that undergirds it. And a controversial presidential election provided an opportunity for socially-sanctioned hatred, which easily spilled over into racism and evocations of historical racial stereotypes.
What this should reveal to us is that we are nowhere near the mythical “post-racial” society and we still have great work to do towards a post-racist society (which ought to be our ideal, although we’ll never reach it completely due to our fallenness). Our prejudices run far deeper than we realized. Our willingness to hate affects us more than we know. Our faith shapes our relationship to our neighbors less than it should.
Obama finished his first term in a more racially divided America than the one in which he began. And I believe that the next four years could be worse still. But I also believe that reconciliation–forgiveness–is preceded by repentance. So long as we believe ourselves to be past racial prejudice against African Americans as a nation, we wont be. Lord grant us to use this opportunity to take account of our hearts and repent.
*These reports at WorldNetDaily, as with everything there, are horribly and deceptively written. But they are a good example of the kind of sensationalistic race-war fears that have been spread over the last four years. See this Salon post on Colin Flaherty’s book at work at WND for more.