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The myth of post-racial America

Guest Blogger

Was the election of Barack Obama the turning point in America’s racial development? Is the United States now set on a path to realize all its hopes and dreams of the civil rights era and narrow the divisions between the races? Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, isn’t so sure. In “Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race,” Sugrue explores the question of race in Obama’s America and finds that much progress is still needed before the nation can truly call itself post-racial.

By Thomas J. Sugrue

The euphoria surrounding Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president seems a lifetime ago. In the days following the election, Gallup reported that more than two-thirds of Americans viewed Obama’s election as “either the most important advance for blacks in the past 100 years, or among the two or three most important such advances.” Obama embodied the rise of a “post-racial” America, a “post civil rights era,” whose very success was proof positive that we had finally overcome.

Obama himself reinforced this view, mostly through silence. On the campaign trail he avoided racial issues unless he was forced to confront them, as in the controversy sparked by his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr. And in the White House, he has assiduously avoided talk about race -- the noteworthy exception being a handful of speeches before predominantly African American audiences.

His calculation is strategic. The political costs are too high. In a peculiar inversion of America’s racial history, it has become a form of racism (“playing the race card”) to suggest that protesters wielding placards depicting Obama as an African witch doctor are racist or that Tea Partiers’ belief that Obama’s policies favor blacks and disadvantage whites are rooted in race. In a topsy-turvy political world, Obama’s mere mention of race in the 2009 brouhaha following the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. led apoplectic commentators, like Fox host Glenn Beck, to accuse the president of being “racist,” a person “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

But the president’s studied silence on race -- and many white Americans’ insistence on their colorblindness -- leave America’s real racial problems mostly unaddressed. Racial injustice today takes a form far more dangerous than the vile prejudices that sometimes appear on placards and racist blogs. It isn’t gross caricatures of Obama as a simian that give the lie to the notion that America has entered a post-racial age. Instead, it’s the deep and persistent gap between blacks and whites by nearly every socioeconomic measure.

A majority of Americans have been afflicted by the Great Recession. But minorities still bear the brunt of economic hardship. Blacks are unemployed at a rate one-and-a-half to two times greater than that of whites. Young blacks have been especially hard hit by the downturn -- nearly a third between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed nationwide.

Just a year after Obama was elected, a coalition of civil rights and labor groups, led by the venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Council of La Raza, demanded that his administration step up its job creation efforts. “Make no mistake, for us this is the civil rights issue of the moment,” argued civil rights leader Wade Henderson. “Unless we resolve the national job crisis, it will make it hard to address all of our other priorities.” Until recently, the unemployment crisis was not at the top of the administration’s economic to-do-list, and its impact on minorities will have devastating effects for a generation to come.

The job situation is bleak, but minorities have also disproportionately borne the burden of the financial crisis. In May, a group of scholars led by Brandeis sociologist Thomas Shapiro released a report showing that the black-white wealth gap has quadrupled in the past 25 years. A household’s wealth is measured by calculating its assets (savings accounts, stocks, bonds, and especially real estate) and its debts. The asset side of the balance sheet is grim: blacks are less likely than whites to own real estate. Even in 2005, at the peak of the most recent real estate bubble, only 49 percent of blacks were homeowners, compared to 74 percent of whites. And because of persistent racial segregation, the value of homes that blacks own is significantly lower than that of white-owned homes.

On the debit side of the ledger, the statistics are even bleaker. Blacks have been disproportionately affected by market failures in home financing and personal credit from the New Deal through the early 21st century. From the 1930s through the late 1960s, blacks seldom had access to federally backed mortgages and loans; in that period and beyond, they were more likely to buy properties using expensive nonmortgage instruments like land contracts; and beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, as the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations deregulated the financial, personal loan, and mortgage markets, predatory lenders (from pawnshops to payday loan agencies to subprime mortgage brokers) found their most lucrative markets among minorities.

In 2006, more than half of subprime loans went to African Americans, who comprise only 13 percent of the population. And a recent study of data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act found that 32.1 percent of blacks, but only 10.5 percent of whites, got higher-priced mortgages -- namely those with an annual percentage rate three or more points higher than the rate of a Treasury security of the same length. The result has been growing economic insecurity among African Americans, even those of middle-class status.

Have we overcome? The historic presidency of Barack Obama offers one answer. But the boarded up, foreclosed houses in minority neighborhoods and the staggering rates of urban unemployment offer another. “The arc of the moral universe,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. “bends towards justice.”

But that arc just as often veers off course. To veer it back on course means recognizing what has changed in the Obama era, but just as importantly, what has not.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 10, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: race in america; obama and race;  
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Racism is just ignorance which can be resolved with education. Unfortunately, education is a long term process. Fortunately, we are making progress and in another 3 generations or so, we may actually be post-racial. One place to start is on a federal level and the census form comes to mind. Stop forcing everyone to identify themselves by their race and maybe, we'll stop looking at each other as different. Other than as an occasional identifying characteristic, race should never be used as any sort of qualifier. If we stop labeling everyone, eventually the subtleties will phase themselves out from the common lexicon.

Posted by: DrFish | June 10, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Right, because the only conceivable explanation for racial disparities is racism.

I've never followed this blog much -and I don't understand why the Post, whose core strength is NOT blogging, has so damn many blogs- but from what I've seen the guest bloggers here are the absolute pits.

Posted by: qaz1231 | June 10, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

More nonsense from the liberal guilt-manufacturing machine.

Fact is that black economic status has been improving steadily for half a century.

That said, black people come from black neighborhoods and black neighborhoods are suffering from the population explosion underwritten by liberal welfare programs of the past 50 years. The consequent social ills that resulted from this influx of money to pay for illegitimate childbirth are pernicious. It's going to take another half a century to sort that out. And the only way that can happen is if black people start enforcing law and order in their own neighborhoods by whatever means necessary.

Liberals are always inventing their own myths (post-racialism!) and then tearing them down in order to blame white people for every social ill afflicting those who are not white. I'm getting a little tired of it. It's not fair to the white majority, which will eventually become just another minority, and it tends to absolve minorities of the responsibility they have for their own self-improvement.

Posted by: theduke89 | June 10, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Let's hope that America is in a post racial era. One can argue that Blacks are more American than most people in that they can trace their lineage further back on American soil than those of us who's families migrated here relatively recently. Of course, arabs an muslims will continue to be singled out, especially so after we inevitably get hit on US soil with some form of WMD. Then it will be open season on those miserable sub-human scumbags.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | June 10, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Let's hope that America is in a post racial era. One can argue that Blacks are more American than most people in that they can trace their lineage further back on American soil than those of us who's families migrated here relatively recently. Of course, arabs an muslims will continue to be singled out, especially so after we inevitably get hit on US soil with some form of WMD. Then it will be open season on those miserable sub-human scumbags.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | June 10, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Look at his all his Republican appointments, his unwillingness to have his Justice Department go after GOP criminals, his unwillingness to help Small Businesses, his protection of Big Businesses. He’s the PERFECT Republican.

He ‘folded’ on the ‘Public Option’ healthcare (while giving the insurance companies TRILLIONS of American dollars), ending the war and closing the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp. He has nothing to say about the up-tick in police violence against citizens and the GOP operation of taxing the citizens thru police and judicial actions. His stimulus package has ‘Billions’ of dollars set-aside for the building of new prisons. And look at his oil drilling agenda. All GOP values!

Other nations are educating their youth – we invent new ways to lock ours up. America may not survive this greedy foolish Republican-lite administration.

Posted by: question-guy | June 10, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

America will be post racial when a black coach takes an all white team to the NCAA championship, wins it, and no one comments on the color of either; especially the WP.

Rodney M. Stine

Posted by: rs1952 | June 10, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Unrestrained welfare programs have led to the decimation of African-American lives and communities in my home town. If the government promoted education and self-sufficiency in minority communities, instead of hand-outs that stretch from generation to generation, these wonderful people could lift themselves out of poverty and economic misery.

It's ridiculous to blame White America for the 2010 financial ills of minorities. Literally every white person I know could care less about what color his or her neighbor (or President) is. The solution to income inequality lies in education, fiscal responsibility and hard work. Trust me, the American Dream is still alive and well, despite what race you come from (and despite what political pundits and university professors tell you).

Posted by: RiverStone | June 10, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

I don't know where to start. I think that there is 'Trash' in every race. I don't single out one race when saying this. Race isn't the issue.

These are the people who aren't willing to get a job, pay their bills, keep themselves and their belongings clean, take care of their kids (including disciplining them), and are criminals.

If you don't want to be in that category, please do something about it. We don't want you there just as much as you don't.

Take some pride in all that you do.

Posted by: Petals81 | June 10, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

"like Fox host Glenn Beck, to accuse the president of being “racist,” a person “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

This is the normal process of making ythe Black voice silent. America is good at silencing Black America, as they have done for four hundred years now.

Black American's are not allowed to speak their mind, inequality, due to a lack of respect for the Black mind and Black people in general.

Overwhelmingly, young people elected the first black president, the children of racist. Maybe fifty years from now when the children's parents have passed on, racism may disappear, as well.

For those commentors that believe there is no racism, ask yourselves why minorities got to participate in subprime loans, even when they qualifiied for prime loans. SYSTEMIC RACISM!


Posted by: patmatthews | June 10, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Races don't even exist, except in the (small) minds of racists. There is no biological, genetic definition of a race. Our "American Races" don't correspond to races delineated in other cultures. (Or perhaps you think that there is some magical connection between people from Japan and people from Pakistan that would cause them both to be labeled Asian)

This incompetent professor trots out meaningless statistics that show a fundamental lack of understanding of the subject. He doesn't factor out any other possible cause of different outcomes, instead choosing to limit himself to the conclusion he wants to draw, and picking numbers out of the air that support that conclusion. Yet, he offers zero examples of any racist acts being performed.

Step two, pathetic lazy person at the post puts up a blog about it.

Step three, hopefully everyone wakes up and realizes that you can succeed with hard work in this country. You might not start at the top, but immigrants come here with nothing, save for years, start businesses, get their children educated, and move forward. We have a culture developing where people are too dependent on The State to provide for their basic needs. We can't plan our way into Utopia, and we certainly haven't.

Posted by: staticvars | June 10, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

"ask yourselves why minorities got to participate in subprime loans, even when they qualifiied for prime loans"[sic]

So you know people who had 20% down payments, say $60k, at the ready, but were told by the lender that they were not allowed to get a prime loan, but must instead keep that money for themselves, so the lender could issue them a riskier note, because they were not of a preferred "race"? It is much more likely that subprime purchasers did not have enough of a downpayment or income to qualify as prime, not that they were being discriminated against on account of their appearance.

Everyone that bought into the bubble made a financial bad move, regardless of loan type, regardless of color. In fact, the greater availability of subprime loans to people of lesser means that they were being given more opportunity than others to purchase homes. There were a lot of people out there who thought they were doing a good thing, in addition to the not insignificant number of Realtors and lenders that misled people. They were both very wrong, but it wasn't all done in malice.

Ask yourself this, if racism and racists disappeared tomorrow, what would the economic effect be? Would there be a significant difference? What if the cultural definition of race changed, defining people like our President as multi-racial? What are the rules? What should they be?

Posted by: staticvars | June 10, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Organizations like the NAACP and Anti-Defamation league and La Raza need racists real or imagined. If not they'd have no reason to exist. Racism is big business. So these organizations never site statisitcs racism is in decline. For them there must always be Nazi or a Klansman under the bed. Every event is somehow racially motivated.
Helen Thomas has been discovered underneath the box springs.

Posted by: SSTK34 | June 10, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I didn't take a job that any black was equally qualified for.
I'm a retired enlisted vet, so I went the same route for upward mobility that is available to any blakc kid who graduates from high school.
What I did have that the majority of blacks don't is a family that had both a loving mother and father who cared about my future and were present for me growing up.

Posted by: mhoust | June 10, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Patrick wrote
"For those commentors that believe there is no racism, ask yourselves why minorities got to participate in subprime loans, even when they qualifiied for prime loans. SYSTEMIC RACISM!"

Um - I'll bite. How about financial education and knowledge. Heck - how about just education. As you correctly state, minorities qualified for prime loans but got subprime. Because they didn't know any better and (as you well know) many of the folks peddling the bad loans to minorities at the personal level were minorities themselves selling to their own folks.

It's all about education and knowledge. The sooner the victim mentality comes off the better.

Posted by: martintomsal | June 10, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

The tone of the article suggests that African-Americans are blameless for all of the inequalities - a common though inexcusable error in academia. I'm a suburban-bred white liberal, and there was a time when I agreed. Then I spent five years working for a majority African-American non-profit in a destitute part of Baltimore, and that changed my mind drastically, though I was not the first person to wake up to that. As African-American sociologist Orlando Patterson put it, "leaders such as Jesse Jackson who blame all of the problems of black America on white racism are not only living in the past, they're living in denial."

Posted by: mikeshumann | June 10, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Sure black people's lives have improved greatly. However, the post-racial myth that grew out of Obama's election ignores the very obvious fact that severe racial discrepencies continue to exist. Pretending they've all be resolved because a black man has been elected president is basically sticking our heads in the sand. Ignoring race and the resulting issues that have roiled this country from the very beginning and continue to be problematic (obviously on a much smaller scale) is why race continues to be a problem...

Posted by: Solnoir | June 10, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

This isn't the early 1900's. Everyone is afforded the same opportunities as the next one. If you choose not to work towards it or fight for it, that's no one's fault but your own. But don't tell me that it's my fault. My mother worked 3 jobs to feed my sister and I growing up. I had hand me down clothing and fought for a good education. I now am paying off the rest of my student loans and working a 6 figure job. All with my own blood and sweat. Push yourself.

Posted by: Petals81 | June 10, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

It's unfortunate that America has not come to terms with her tragic racist past. She feels justified for years of oppression of her black and brown people because she has elected a black man for president. The election of a black man for president only succeeded in bringing to the forefront what has been hidden for years and thought non-existent,"racism is still alive and well." In the God Defined Self A Layman's Perspective on Racism in America the author takes a hard look at racism in America by addressing and educating white america through insightful eyes. He touches on the socioeconomic disparities between america's black and brown citizens and their white counterparts. He also asks the poignant question of when will you (white america) allow your black and brown citizens to be defined by their creator instead of forcing them into a mold that is a replica of yourselves? If nothing else the book offers a clear path to the desperate need for racial reconciliation. It's a must read! I believe it's available on and Barnes &

Posted by: Gweneth73 | June 10, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

We've got a really viable candidate in King's district--his name is Matt Campbell. He won his Democratic Primary 76-24. You can contribute to his campaign using his ActBlue account

Posted by: amcohen91 | June 15, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

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