January 20th 2009 provoked many questions for the people of this country. But to me, there were not any questions more frustrating than this one: “Is racism over now that we have a black man as President?” The fact that we are asking ourselves this question means we have not seriously considered the nature of racism and its long-standing influence on the history of this country and its occupants. Furthermore, the answer to this question may not be easily grasped by anyone who has never been the subject of systematic racism. For those who have not experienced direct or indirect empowered prejudice based on skin color and physical features, it would be both convenient and easy to believe that a black man being President fixes it all. Such a belief would be naïve, and if you’re a Christ follower, possibly even sinful. Barack Obama was elected neither Dictator nor Messiah, and certainly his election can’t mean the end of racism as we know it, as many have hoped. It is important that we appreciate the achievement of electing an African American to the office of the Presidency, but it is equally important to keep such an achievement in proper relational and historical perspective.Let’s first acknowledge that racism can be and often is interpersonal. It may be conscious or subconscious but racism acts out in relations between two or more people. Unfortunately, Barack Obama’s relationship to most people is political, not personal, and there we find the crux of our problem. Yes, a majority of Americans may have voted for him as President. But what about as a friend? Would they also have voted for him to be a brother-in-law? Step-dad? Son-in-law? A majority vote for Obama isn’t necessarily a vote for closer relations with the minorities of America. Penciling a personally unknown man into (albeit an important) office, far away and buffered with checks and balances, is very different from inviting him into your home or maybe even into your family? The choice to put away racism is a choice that people make, or don’t make, via interactions with their neighbors, not with their ballot sheets or a President 1200 miles away. Such a vote for better relations with “those people” is a vote that has to be cast, not once every four years, but every day until “those people” become “my people.” I would hope that someone couldn’t vote for Obama one day and the next day think some racial epithet or look in fear on a minority, but I’m just not that optimistic.Let us also acknowledge that racism is systemic. Barack Obama’s Presidency has so far done very little to address directly the myriad problems that plague minority America. The perceived value of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue might have appreciated due to the popularity of its current residents, but find me one other zip code where a black family moved into a previously all-white tract on or after January 20th, 2009, and real estate values went up. First black man moves into the White House? People of all colors pack the front lawn as far as the eye can see. First black man moves into some other all-white affluent neighborhood? White people might start passing out the Red Bull (“because Red Bull gives you wings”). Roger that Houston, we are a “go” for White Flight. I can’t think of any agency or company that has changed their hiring practices as a result of the Presidential election. I can’t think of any INS procedure that has gotten easier since Obama took office. I can’t think of any police department that has changed its policies on racial profiling now that a black guy is riding in the big armored limo instead of driving it. Sit down and create a list. Column A: things that have changed for minorities because an African American has become President. Column B: things that have not changed for minorities since an African American has become President. I think you’ll find column B runs off the bottom of your page, while Column A is significantly shorter. Racism has been evolving and metastasizing in this nation before we ever had a constitution, a government, or for that matter, a President. To expect that this loathsome and gargantuan barnacle could be suddenly evicted from our ship-of-state overnight simply by changing a light in the pilot house is unrealistic.Speaking of the pilot-house, let us examine the office of the Presidency in isolation. Again the premise is that Barack Obama’s occupation of the White House suddenly removes racism from the country, or in this case, the office of President. Immediately, many believed that there was equality for all, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had finally become a reality. Those minds fail to consider this one thing: The math is off. Waaaaaay, waaaaay off. You see: such a premise is based on the equation 43 = 1. Barack Obama is of course the 44th President of the United States, but also the nation’s first minority President. Yeah, you knew that. But what most people haven’t considered in contrast is this: since George Washington first took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, the Presidency has been passed from the hands of one white man to the next in a chain uninterrupted for 220 years. For all of that time a white person has exercised the powers of the Presidency, primarily to the benefit of…well until 1965, white people. Minorities didn’t get equal voting rights until 1965, so how could any President before that time claim to represent the will of those who had made no meaningful contribution to his election? Even if Barack Obama serves out all four years of his term and gets re-elected, he will be hard pressed to make up for so many decades of white-for-whites decision making—decisions which continue to pay benefits for whites today. Some examples might be useful here: Andrew Jackson’s explicit and willful failure to perform his Constitutional duties in upholding the edict of the Supreme Court and due to his inaction, the subsequent unlawful eviction of the Cherokee Indians from their treaty-guaranteed native lands; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 signed by Chester A. Arthur; the forced internment of Japanese Americans by Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066; the list goes on. Each of these events required at least presidential consent if not direct action. Each resulted in negative consequences for minorities that can still be felt. Certainly not all decisions made by white Presidents served only white people, but a preponderance of evidence remains, leading us to correct our math: 43 ≠ 1.
Furthermore, the very expectations for Obama’s Presidency differ from that laid on any President before him. No one knows this better than Barack Obama. In reference to his inauguration address Obama quoted one of his children (and then responds to that quote himself): “And then Malia says, ‘First African American president—it better be good.’ So I just want you to know the pressures I’m under here from my children.” Such differing expectations did not end with Obama’s first speech as President, nor are those judging him limited only to his children. Can anyone find me a record of anyone attending George Washington’s inauguration and saying “I sure hope George does a good job ‘cuz if he doesn’t no white person will have a chance at the Presidency for at least the next 20 years!” Both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush left office with disastrous approval ratings. Despite this no one has yet stood up and shouted “Dangnabbit! That’s the last white guy I’ll ever vote for.” So if JC or GWB aren’t held as representative of all white people who have or will potentially hold the office of President of the United States, why is Obama expected to be an indicator of the future for any and all African Americans who might sit in the Oval Office? Sadly the truth is that depending on how Barack Obama completes his Presidency, it could be harder for the next African American, or any minority in that case, to become President. The fact that expectations, and the consequences of failing to meet those expectations, are different for a black President than a white President demonstrates the very inequality that King preached against when he emphasized the content of character over the color of skin.
Finally, let us acknowledge that racism is complex. Equating the ascendancy of an African American to the office of President with the solution to the overarching racial divide in America is to perceive wrongly and naively racism as purely a conflict of black vs. white. I think we’ve established that getting a black man or woman into the Oval Office isn’t the magic bullet to kill racism against African Americans. So if an African American President doesn’t solve the problem of racism against African Americans, how can it solve the problem of racism against minorities who aren’t even black? People who are prejudiced against blacks are not more likely to drop their prejudices against black people just because one of those black people is President. The same people are even less likely to drop prejudiced beliefs against non-black minority groups. In exclusive terms of the Presidency itself, for African Americans it’s “1 down, 43 to go;” but for other minorities the score is even more daunting than that.Some may ask: “So are you saying it doesn’t matter one bit that we have an African American as President?” Not at all. The ascendancy of an African American to the Presidency is an event to be celebrated. However, banishing racism from the national conscience will not take place via the Presidency, nor legislation from Congress, nor any political act or occupation of office whatsoever. Personally, I’m not willing to wait till there’s been 43 white Presidents, 43 black Presidents, 43 Latino Presidents, etc. To lay the burden on Barack Obama for ending racism is not only unfair to him and morally irresponsible for the rest of us; it is also an abdication of the calling we who call ourselves Christians have to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves. I believe racism has to be fought not by the person we elect, but by the people we choose to be. Only when we individually and collectively make an intentional, daily decision to treat others with equality and reject mechanisms which systematically subjugate peoples based on the color of their skin will we have achieved something akin to Dr. King’s dream of the Promised Land.