Posted on September 25, 2008

The Racial Implications of a Barack Obama Presidency

Mikhail Lyubansky, Oped News, September 25, 2008


For self-identified racists, I’m afraid little would change. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that when new information contradicts our deeply held beliefs, we find reason to discount the information, rather than change our beliefs. Thus, for self-identified racists, an Obama victory would be just another sign that our country is in trouble and that its citizens are deluded—even a possible sign of Armageddon. In some ways, this group will be least affected. I’m just going to move on.

For most of the White majority (the majority of the majority, if you’re keeping score at home), having a person of color in the White House would be nothing short of liberating. After decades of learning about the history of (white) racism, being explicitly and implicitly blamed for contemporary racial inequities in education, income, and other important outcomes, and, more generally, living in fear of the R-word, well-intentioned White Americans would finally have a ready response: The most powerful person in the country—”The Man”—is Black (I know “biracial”, but “black” is how most people see him). How do you like them apples?

Personal relief from guilt and shame is really not a good enough reason to consider race in electoral politics, but I’m talking about collective and institutional relief too. A Black President doesn’t solve all of our racial problems. Not even close! But it is a litmus test of sorts. It means American society is ready for a non-White President. This is liberating.

For many poor Whites (I don’t mean to suggest that all or even most White people think this way, but many do) a Black President would shatter the myth of superiority—the belief that they rate higher on some imaginary social hierarchy than people of color on the basis of their whiteness. Throughout America’s history, poor white people could take comfort in the knowledge that their President, like them, was White, and by virtue of his Whiteness, could understand them and relate to them, despite the usually formidable differences in income and wealth. With Obama in the White House, poor Whites would join the rest of the disenfranchised poor in believing that their President doesn’t understand them, can’t relate to them, and, for the skeptically inclined, doesn’t care about them. {snip}

How is this good? Because it would shake up the traditional race-based alliances. Poor whites have typically supported a conservative agenda (and, by extension, conservative politicians) under the mistaken belief that they have something in common with the White elite and that this White elite is concerned about their well-being. In contrast poor Blacks have tended to be skeptical and distrustful of White leadership—a fact not lost on the white majority. A Black President would challenge both world-views. {snip}

For the Black working class, Obama, like any person in power, would bring disappointment, but he’d also bring real hope. For some, he would also bring back the American Dream, the belief that anyone has a shot at the good life, and that hard work raises the probability. In many Black families, this Dream has long been abandoned, replaced by the hopeless belief that the world cares little about people like them and that the white majority wants nothing more than to keep them in their place. Never mind whether or not this has been true up to now, President Obama would be viable proof that White Americans are able to see beyond race and willing to be represented and led by a person of color. And then there is this: For the first time, we would have a President who actually knows what it’s like to be Black in America. {snip}

For anti-racism activists, hope and disappointment are also likely, but so is ambivalence and at least a bit of confusion. An Obama victory won’t signal the end of racism, but it will signal something. Social policies, including affirmative action, can only be evaluated within a specific social context. An Obama victory would substantially alter this context. What does it mean to argue that members of a particular racial group are disadvantaged or disenfranchised, when a member of that same group holds the most powerful office in the country? To be sure, statistics documenting significant race-group differences in education, income, and incarceration rates would not be noticeably different under Obama (at least not at first), nor would the educational and criminal justice institutions. But a Black person in power has to change something. Indeed, Obama’s nomination alone has altered the landscape such that racial justice, racial prejudice, and even racial privilege are being discussed in circles that have usually not bothered. {snip}