November 04, 2008

President-Elect Obama: The End of Racism?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

Today will go down in American history as a landmark day. After electing our first African American president we ought to take a moment and reflect on where we have been, how far we have come, and how far we have to go to combat racism in the United States. 

Barack Obama's March 2008 speech on race acknowledged, as others have before him, that racism is America’s original sin. The framers of the clip_image002Constitution allowed slavery to remain in a nation founded on the highest principles of liberty and freedom. This decision rendered African Americans held in slavery to be property, not granted the most basic human rights. It took nearly a century for African Americans to gain basic citizenship rights—at least in theory—after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, was supposed to ensure that African Americans have full voting rights. 

And yet many African Americans, particularly in the South, were kept from full political participation. Poll taxes, which required people to pay fees in order to vote, grandfather clauses that stipulated that if your grandfather couldn’t vote, neither could you (which impacted all African Americans whose grandparents were born before the Fifteenth Amendment), and literacy tests that only African Americans were forced to pass served to keep most away from the polls. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that many of these practices ended. It is somewhat remarkable to think that when President-elect Obama was born in 1961, many African Americans were routinely kept from the polls, let along public office. Many states’ miscegenation laws would have made his parents’ marriage illegal; it was not until the aptly named Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia in 1967 that ensured the rights of interracial couples to marry. 

Within Obama's lifetime, African Americans have gone from winning basic voting rights to seats in state and national legislatures, governors (although only four have been governor to date), and now president. In many ways, this election has embodied Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech (given when Obama was two), in that many people—hopefully most people—who voted for or against Obama did so because of his proposed policies rather than his skin color. 

But we shouldn’t take this milestone to mean that racism is no longer an issue in the United States. In fact, this election brought racism out of its usual hiding places. I was surprised to hear people being interviewed for radio and television speak openly about their reluctance to vote for Obama because of his race. One woman in rural Virginia, a registered Democrat, told National Public Radio (NPR) of her reluctance to vote for Obama: 

"I never really thought about whether or not that I was racist, or however you want to put it," said Tina Graham. She fears Obama would focus on African-Americans at the expense of poor white people like herself. "It's just the fact that I think that he will represent them, and what they want, and what they need. ... They're his people, they're his race."

This comment reflects other concerns that somehow “his people” and thus his interests are not American interests. Other exchanges, like this one and this one, suggest that he might send away money to Africa because of his family background. Racial stereotypes also surfaced in a cartoon of a dollar bill that featured Obama’s face and well-worn stereotypes of watermelon and fried chicken. Yet its creator denied any racism: 

Still other acts of racism were more threatening, like someone scrawling "KKK" over an Obama sign in New York, and perhaps most disturbing, one homeowner hung an Obama "ghost" from a noose in his front yard, and told reporters he did it because he does not want a black person to be president. 

Barack Obama embodies some of the contradictions embedded in the meaning of race. He is both black and white by ancestry (many African Americans have significant European ancestry as well), and has borne the burdens of racism as well as some of the privileges of whiteness. For instance, he frequently speaks of his grandfather’s service in World War II and assistance from the GI Bill. As author Edward Humes documents in Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream, many returning African American soldiers were denied the benefits given to white soldiers. Although his mother’s family was apparently of modest means, had they been black it is likely they would not have had the same opportunities to make it into the middle class. Ironically, genealogical research uncovered that Obama is also the descendent of slave holders

Obama grew up learning to navigate within the world of whites, something many African Americans have historically been kept separate from thanks to residential segregation. Although as he writes about in his memoir, this created a bit of an identity crisis, which surfaced when he first ran for Congress. Referred to as “the white man in blackface” in a 2000 Chicago Reader article, he has faced criticism of not being "black enough". Both his candidacy and his identity remind us that race is not nearly as clear cut as we might think, and that racism is not as far in the past as we might hope to believe.

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Comments

Thanks for a great analysis. While I am very optimistic about the possible positive effects of Obama's presidency on opportunities for people of color in the U.S., I wonder and worry about how the white population, living largely segregated from people of color and especially African Americans, will make sense of the differences they perceive between Obama (who, as you point out, was socialized in white culture) and African Americans who are socialized in black culture. Obama "acts white", which could result in white Americans labeling those African-Americans who "act black" as even more different from themselves.

Despite continuous scrutiny and doubt, Barack Obama represents significant change for America and its people. It has never been thought to be considerably possible for a black man to attain the title of President of the United States, but the impossible has indeed happened. Although it’s apparent that racism has not begun to dissolve on a substantial basis, it’s important for people to recognize Obama for his ideals and not his skin color. Obama was elected president because the people believed him to be the best-fit candidate to resolve America’s current economical tragedy and foreign diplomatic struggles.
President-elect Obama signifies a change in perception from a sociological perspective. The people have done the unthinkable in electing a black man President of the United States. Although his triumph over John McCain cannot immediately determine the impact of his presidency on the future of American politics, it is certain that it will pave the way for minorities of different origin alike to overcome adversity, such as discrimination. It also gives all Americans a sense of hope and pride in that we have come so far. America has truly claimed freedom and liberty for all of its citizens strictly because of what Barack Obama symbolizes, regardless of race, color, and social status.

On the evening of November 4th 2008 I think that the racial barrier was finally broken in the United States of America. Even though there are some people who still believe in racism and aren’t happy with Obama as our new elect president. We can look back into our country’s past and understand how far we actually have come. It wasn’t even till 1965 that African Americans had full voting privileges and before that they were issued to do ridiculous tasks just to vote; as in taking literacy tests or even paying poll taxes so they can just voice their opinion.
I feel that this election was the most historic one to ever take place in history. The words that Martin Luther King spoke in his “I Have a Dream” speech finally came true. It seems that this election was won by proposed policies rather than the color of skin. It’s very unfortunate that even today we still hear of acts of racism taking place such as the letters “KKK” being scrawled above Obama’s sign in New York. It’s hard to face reality and hear about these racial acts being committed still, but we have to understand our nation can only climb one large step at a time.

As i watch the inauguration of President elect Barack Obama there are many different races in the crowd. The racism look to be over but it will never completely be gone. There will always be Racist groups. The thing that these racist people must do is study the culture of there race. Where is the KKK from and do they still have a strong group?

I feel that now more than ever racism is an ever present problem. Since President Obama has been elected there have been uprisings of many racial comments, cartoons, and whatever else people want to claim as "not" being racist. The one question I would like to ask is, if you aren't African American how can you ever say that something depicting African Americans as rib loving fools isn't racist. To even create a cartoon like that shows how little respect people have for African Americans and shows how far we still have to go to fix this unfixable problem.

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