What Does Obama’s Post-Racialism Mean for Black America?

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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The Obama campaign has treated “race” and “blacks” as words best not mentioned in polite company. Even when it would have been natural or expected for Obama to discuss race or the needs of black communities, he has sidestepped the issue. The most blacks received were occasional lectures about personal responsibility which could have been uttered by Bill Cosby or Bill O’Reilly.

Only when cornered by opponents’ references to Reverend Jeremiah Wright did Obama speak seriously of racial discrimination. Even then, all of the issues Wright raised were treated as issues from the past that had no relevance for today. On the other hand, Obama has made passing references to gender-based discrimination as something existing today.

This strategy is very smart for trying to get a black man elected. Obama has to navigate two minefields to win. He has to deal with conscious and overt anti-blackness as well as subconscious anti-black bias. A recent study has suggested that about a third of Democrats have some degree of overt anti-black attitudes. About 50 percent of Americans have subconscious anti-black attitudes. These individuals think that they are free of racial prejudice, but in specific instances they behave with anti-black bias. Also, white Americans are more likely to subconsciously associate blacks with being non-American. These conscious and subconscious attitudes make one less likely to support Obama.

To win, the Obama campaign has avoided anything that could make Obama seem like a candidate concerned about black people. The stronger Obama’s association with black people and black issues, the more likely he would trigger conscious and subconscious anti-black attitudes in the American electorate and lose the election. Thus, the Obama campaign has treated race like superman deals with kryptonite. The further away from the topic Obama stays the better his political health. This means that, ironically, because of anti-black prejudice in American society, Obama has to pretend that there is no anti-black prejudice, if he wishes to win.

This strategy took Obama far, but it did not seem to be enough. A month ago, it seemed like a significant portion of Democrats were still more swayed by anti-blackness than by their political beliefs. Only about 70 percent of Democrats supported Obama while 85 percent of Republicans supported McCain. Apparently, it took the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression and missteps by the McCain campaign to finally produce a commanding lead for the Obama campaign.

Assuming that Obama wins, what does this post-racial stategy mean for blacks? Ironically, a black president automatically presents significant obstacles for addressing the needs of black communities. If elected, Obama will surely wish to be re-elected. This means that he has to continue with post-racialist politics. The best blacks can hope for is a few more “Cosby” speeches. Also, the highly-organized Republican attack machine will look for any opportunity stroke anti-black attitudes and racial fears in the American public. Any overtly racial policies will be condemned by the right-wing pitbulls. In other words, race will continue to be kryptonite.

People concerned about racial justice and justice specifically for blacks will need to be at least as organized and effective as the right-wing, if they hope to see any race-specific progress under an Obama administration. The bad news is that this is not likely to happen. The good news is that Obama’s centrist Democratic policies will still be far better for blacks than the policies of George W. Bush or of a president John McCain.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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