By Dr. Christopher J. Metzler
A recent New York Times/CBS poll concluded that race relations are improving in the wake of the election of President Obama. According to the survey, about 66 percent of Americans said that race relations are generally good compared with 53 percent in July of last year. Fifty-nine percent of African-Americans – along with 65 percent of whites – now characterize the relationship between Blacks and Whites in America as ‘good,’ The New York Times proclaimed with glee, “Barack Obama’s presidency seems to be altering the public perception of race relations in the United States.” The Huffington Post also chimed in claiming that “Obama’s race relations effect is real.”
It seems that the single event of the election of President Obama has erased America’s racial transgressions in one fell swoop and has improved the relationship between Blacks and Whites overnight. The problem, however, is not relations between Blacks and Whites; there is no evidence yet that the election of President Obama has had more than a symbolic (but important) effect on America’s still unresolved and conflicted relationship with race.
Obama’s election has not changed the fact that in this economic downturn, Black unemployment is at approximately 15 percent while White unemployment is at approximately eight percent. Since his election, racial profiling has not stopped, the educational achievement gap between Blacks and Whites has not narrowed. In addition, the President did not attend, nor did he send a delegation to the World Racism conference in Geneva. Thus, it can be argued that Obama’s election has had nothing but a symbolic effect on race. The difficulty with this argument is that it suffers from the same flaw in logic that is inherent in the New York Times/CBS News poll.
First, the question in the poll was about race relations. That is, the interpersonal relationship between Blacks and Whites. But, the issue is not race relations, it is whether the President will use his bully pulpit to eradicate the substantive racial inequalities that afflict Blacks in America. Much like he will use it to bring peace to the Middle East.
Thus far, the President has been reluctant to do so in any meaningful way. He did chide Attorney General Eric Holder for stating that on the issue of race, America is a nation of cowards. The President said, ”I’m not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions.” The issue, Mr. President, is racial progress, not racial tension. Moreover, it is about action, not talk.
The President has given no major address on race since his election nor has he implemented any policies that suggest a more inclusive approach to substantive racial equality than any of his all White predecessors. The President’s foray into the question of race came only when as a candidate the Rev. Jeremiah Wright threatened to derail his ascension to the presidency. Is this a racial harbinger of things to come?
In a “post-racial America”, the fact that Obama is Black restricts rather than expands his ability to implement racially substantive policies. The racial calculus in America means that the President must tread lightly on race lest he lose the support of those Whites who claim to be “post-racial.” Some Whites voted for Obama because he is not in the “radical” mold of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Rather, he is in the “acceptable” role of Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Second, some will argue that he can’t do all things immediately and that he should be given more time. Fair enough. He did, however, immediately decree the closure of Guantanamo Bay, ordered a halt to torture, and rescinded several executive orders by the Bush Administration. Thus, the question, is does a “post-racial America” mean that on the issue of race, his presidency will be relegated to a symbolic footnote? Or that while he was elected to solve America’s economic and international problems, he was not elected to solve its racial problems?
Third, the United States is fascinated with grading our Presidents on their progress in their first 100 days in office. One can argue as to whether or not this is an appropriate barometer. As the pundits and analysts pontificated and analyzed, noticeably absent from the discourse was any analysis of his progress on substantive racial equality efforts. Does this suggest that the chattering class have adopted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the issue of race? Or does it suggest that America understands and accepts that the black community is willing to trade symbolic victory on the issue of race for substantive victory? Thus, we are willing to avoid the critique of racial avoidance that we have leveled against his all White predecessors.
Fourth, regardless of the “post-racial” moniker attached uncritically to the President’s election, there is racial reality. There are four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that are dripping in racial verisimilitude and, which, depending on how the Court rules, can set the racial clock backwards. Assuming, for example, that the Court castrates affirmative action or renders the Voting Rights Act pointless in the age of Obama; will the President sit on the racial sidelines? And if he does, will this solidify the notion that the single event of his election is proof positive that America has moved beyond race? As a candidate, if these issues threatened to derail his candidacy, would he have acted? If so, how?
Fifth, perhaps it is a question of expectations. That is, why should we expect a Black President to be more racially inclusive than a non-Black President? Or is the question whether he is a Black President or a President who happens to be Black? The fact that these questions are being asked at all suggests that despite the desire by some to “move beyond race”, it is not as simple as it seems. Thus, dismantling racial discourse and substantive racial inequality requires a shift away from the “post-racial” claptrap that has debauched the descant of the Obama victory.
This means that Black advocates for substantive racial equality should not cower in fear of interrogating the first Black President about how he plans to deal with race. It also means that Whites who support the President should ask themselves whether that support is in exchange for his not engaging in any meaningful way on the issue of race.
Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is Associate Dean at Georgetown University and author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a “Post-Racial” America.