What Effect Would Obama's Election Have on Race Relations?

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Mr. Roediger, a historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author of How Race Survived U.S. History (Verso).

That sharp student of race and change in the U.S., Malcolm X, once observed that white supremacy was like a Cadillac. Both featured constant model changes, but also an ongoing pattern that gave the branding continuity across years and generations. Racial inequality, on this view, was not the fixed set of differences that racist advocates of “segregation forever” still hoped for as Malcolm X wrote. But neither was it an ever-diminishing flaw, gradually being overcome, as liberals insisted. Instead it was, to borrow a phrase the poet Amiri Baraka applied to jazz, a “changing same.” 

As I finished the just-published popular study How Race Survived U.S. History (Verso), in the midst of the dramatic unfolding of the 2008 presidential campaign, I more and more appreciated the suppleness of Malcolm’s metaphor. After arguing that slavery and settlement created race in its modern sense, the book describes the ways in which deep structural and political inequalities insured the continuation of race-thinking. New forms constantly emerged in response to new events and forces—for example, revolutionary egalitarianism, the emancipatory turn of the Civil War, mass immigration, freedom movements, and the advent of formal legal equality--that really did pressure and alter white supremacy.

Nonetheless the book posited overarching continuities, often generated by deep connections of whiteness and access to property and liberty, connections cemented by state action at one critical juncture after another.  And as I wrote, African American and Latino family wealth was a ninth that of whites. Black males suffered incarceration rates at sevenfold those of white males, with much of the imprisonment stemming from drug crimes committed in rough parity across the color line. Two-thirds of all tuberculosis cases afflicted people of color. The very narrow room for maneuver, vision and arguments regarding justice in the two-party elections in the U.S. left no candidate speaking directly to such issues.

Analysts of the “Obama Phenomenon” have had a hard time keeping both halves of the Cadillac comparison at play. For upwards of a year the media and others have instead offered up an alternating current insisting at one moment that race was on its way out if not over and in the next that the same old changeless Cadillac of racism made Barack Obama’s election impossible. Obama’s earliest success in the Iowa caucuses generated an immediate and particular euphoria. Both he and “we” had won, with the accent on the latter. Commentators from the Wall Street Journal to Andrew Sullivan to Jesse Jackson gloried in a new racial day.

After Iowa, the polls in the New Hampshire primary showed Democrats there poised promised to ratify the redemption of the U.S.from racism, with a nearly all-white state ready to deliver so many votes to Obama as to knock Hillary Clinton out of the race. When Clinton nevertheless won in New Hampshire, running over 15% better than the polls had predicted, suddenly the election seemed to observers to be all about the continuities of race.

Pew Center studies from the 1990s on white responses to pollsters in elections with an African American candidate were dusted off. The studies posited that many whites were liberal enough to contemplate voting for a black candidate,  but insufficiently so to actually pull the voting booth lever for him or her. The Clinton campaign broadly hinted that some variant of this logic operated, insisting that she therefore had a better chance to win even when she trailed Obama in national polls against the likely Republican nominee. Hillary Clinton’s deplorable--she herself quickly deplored it--claim to be the candidate of “hardworking Americans, white Americans” thus came in a context of a campaign in which race typically and alternately was cast as either being over or as being what really mattered. Indeed it has often been cast as both at once.

Where voters of color are concerned, the attempts to find a simplistically “racial” explanation for electoral choices have run riot. When Sergio Bendixen, an advisor to Clinton’s  campaign, told the New Yorker that “The Hispanic voter – and I want to say this very carefully – has not shown a lot of willingness… to support black candidates,” he was echoing much superficial reporting on an allegedly insurmountable Black/Latino rift. Criticisms of his stance centered on its political correctness, not on the fact that it was historically wrong. Now that Obama trounces McCain in polls of Hispanic voters, no retractions are deemed necessary.

More spectacularly, though it is now hard to recall, pundits originally tied very early polls showing an African American preference for Clinton over Obama to the atavistic belief that he was supposedly “not black enough” culturally and perhaps genetically. When massive Black support for Obama did coalesce, the equally reductive explanation became that African Americans vote along racial lines moved to the fore.

Reality was always more complicated. In the pivotal South Carolina primary, Obama won by combining a quarter of the white vote with a huge majority of African American primary voters. When his supporters hopefully chanted “RACE DOESN’T MATTER” at the victory rally they therefore did so more in the spirit of hope than of sociological accuracy, but their optimism at least left room for contemplating the remarkable fact  that a fourth of white South Carolina Democratic voters had chosen an African American candidate.

An accent on the change in the changing same of Obama’s candidacy would stress his charismatic ability to embody much of what has forced new permutations of white supremacy since the 1960s: Immigration by people of color, significant increases in racial intermarriage and transracial adoptions, and the rise of a cosmopolitan and successful new Black middle class able to move in and sometimes move mainstream institutions are the most discussed such factors.

How Race Survived U.S. History would add that the tremendous influence of African popular culture, often in the most highly marketed forms, and the use of self-reporting of race in the census and other official contexts, combine to leave race today seeming more and more a matter of choice, even taste. Especially among young white voters this absence of fixity opens the way to preferring Obama and his style.

However, such changes leave open the question of whether race is a matter of choice for poor people of color, often “illegal” in terms of immigration status or “in the system” of incarceration and its aftermath. Moreover, the politics of style which attracts white voters to Obama would likely be greatly strained if his campaign also included straightforward appeals to redress racial inequalities.

The election therefore is sure to tell us important things about race in the U.S., but not whether the Cadillac of white supremacy is about to be taken out of production. However much pundits and candidates want to make the question of race turn on bad but disappearing individual attitudes, and then to measure whether many or few voters act on those attitudes on election day, the deep structural inequalities not being discussed in this election continue to decisively shape whether race will survive in the twenty-first century U.S.

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    Vernon Clayson - 10/13/2008

    Dream on, Mr. Chamberlain, it's not the design of the schools, we could make every school the Taj Mahal or something akin and Disney-like to it but the students would still be the same, what schools and students lack is discipline, there is none. In the upper grades the teachers are mere punching bags for the students, the administration and the parents. For every sincere student in a class there are a dozen, or dozens, that just do not care.

    R.R. Hamilton - 10/10/2008

    The author says:

    However much pundits and candidates want to make the question of race turn on bad but disappearing individual attitudes, and then to measure whether many or few voters act on those attitudes on election day, the deep structural inequalities not being discussed in this election continue to decisively shape whether race will survive in the twenty-first century U.S.

    What are those "deep structural inequalities"?

    Oscar Chamberlain - 10/8/2008

    Affirmative action in loans had little directly to do with the bailout: http://www.slate.com/id/2201641/. The one exception I would make to the statements in that article is that some Democrats apparently allowed their support for those loans to blind them to weaknesses in the way those agencies evaluated the value of their loans in general.

    As for Obama, nearly all of his career as a politician suggests someone who really wants to bridge racial divides. Whether he will do so effectively, we will not know unless he is elected, but to me it looks quite likely that he will try.

    Oscar Chamberlain - 10/8/2008

    Institutional racism does exist despite a tremendous and positive decline in overt bigotry and discrimination. It exists because institutional structures can perpetuate behaviors even after the motivation for the behaviors (in this case, publically endorsed discrimination on the basis of skin color) has declined.

    For a less charged example, consider public school design. Public schools, in particular those above grade-school level, were designed in response to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. The structures were designed to inculcate in students values and skills the designers considered appropriate to the emerging world.

    A remarkable number of those structures--in particular rigid ones like bells and fixed periods for tasks--remain with us in most public schools today, despite considerable changes in the social environment and the needs of students.

    (This isn't simply about "liberal" values. The better examples of home-schooling also provide evidence that a disciplined flexibility can surpass the old more rigid forms.)

    Yet schools are hard to change despite the tremendous efforts of people to do so. In part this is because it is hard to change organizational structures without dismantling the organization and in part because trying to make an existing organization evolve increases the level of fear and distrust among people who have adapted to the system--and sometimes even made it work fairly well. Likewise, it is hard to erase racist outcomes from organizations designed at a time when racism was either assumed or was simply not considered a problem, particularly if the organization is functioning "successfully."

    I do sometimes wish there was a different term for the phenomena than institutional racism. Inevitably the word "racism" connotes a personal attitude or even a sin, whereas what actually happens is not necessarily a conscious phenomenon so much as the less-conscious assumption that what seems familiar and easy is also fair.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/7/2008

    President Obama, if he should win despite the Bradley effect, will have the greatest opportunity to improve race relations in U.S. history, but it is doubtful he will take it. We are more likely to see race relations worsened by his elevation. I expect him to revert to a closer embrace of the Jeremiah Wright philosophy--to stop dancing away from it--which, of course, will preclude any chance of bettering race relations as well as any chance of his reelection. And I expect him to deny that affirmative action mortgages were the cause of the current market crash, too. What he should do is offer a ringing repudiation of affirmative action in every sphere. That is what he has to do if he is going to bury the race problem for all time, and we have no reason to believe he harbors enough genius, or indeed has sufficient courage, to take up that challenge.

    Charles Lee Geshekter - 10/6/2008

    Nowhere does the obsession with endless racism appear to be prominent than in the cloistered and confined quarters of American universities.

    In the minds of many academics, systemic racism and structural racism are so deep, so pervasive, so enduring and so insidious that many people simply fail to see it!

    The cottage industry of racial studies seeks to show that bias, prejudice and racism are everywhere.

    It makes little difference to such folks whether Obama or McCain wins. Either way, they will still have oodles and oodles of examples to share and studies to conduct to confirm the systemic and structuralism racism that still bedevils the USA.

    Raul A Garcia - 10/6/2008

    Good analysis about the systemic racism. I am hopeful we may have a political surprise in this election, but beyond that, that this is not just a cosmetic change but evocative or a real undercurrent of change in the body politic. As an educator, I try to foster a "one race" concept of humanity, based on DNA and fossil record and common sense. I find a "systemic ruffian" among our young, mostly the mimicry of the media creation, but also the end product of a violent history for all, native americans, immigrants, and women. Having experienced ethnic prejudice myself, it takes sensitivity and exposure of controversial issues in our collective histories. Sticks and stones, and names also hurt.

    Vernon Clayson - 10/6/2008

    I doubt that there will be a President Obama but only the naive believe that he or anyone will produce some magical change in the culture. Whatever anyone says, most black children and white children start out in life the same way, with loving and protective parents, where the problems start is in the educational system. That is where the child, of either race, is challenged less by the system than by his or her peers. The wrong companions and bullying set the weak apart, it's not really that much different than a prison setting. Teachers are as much keepers as instructors after the third or fourth grade, that's when the bright and precocious child stops trying to please the teacher and turns to pleasing the ruffians amongst them.

    Jeremy Young - 10/6/2008

    Roediger hits the nail on the head about the "deep structural inequalities" inherent in the U.S. system. Hopefully President Obama will listen to pieces like this and attempt to address those inequalities.