The myth of post-racial America
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.
Steven E. Levingston
June 10, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: race in america; obama and race;
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