Is Racism Over Now That a Black Man is President of the United States?

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.   

9 Responses to “Is Racism Over Now That a Black Man is President of the United States?”

  1. Rachel O'Brien Says:

    Yes and yes! Thank you for this riveting and at times witty post. I am amazed at the way you have articulated the many facetes of racism as both personal and systemic and that you have noted that it would in fact be easier to vote an African American into presidency than it would be for many of us to have dinner with one. I agree we are asking the wrong questions, as Christians are apt to do, when we ask, “Is racism over now that we have a black man as President?” As church goers it is clear that it is not. Our demographics on Sunday’s proves it and yet it seems that we attempt a great pat on the back because Obama sits where he does, allowing us to continue to sit where we do. But this static Church is in fact festering. How easy we find our lives, with an African American president, as long as our congregation does not change, as long as our work place and neighorhood does not change. We can attribute a great success by noting one person in office, rather than finding the failures we act out, intentionally and unintentionally, every day.

  2. Kelsi Says:

    Very stimulating and crucial points that you raise! I resonate with what you are saying, and as Rachel says, I think in many ways this is the “quick fix” we are foolishly banking on to feel better about a problem of which we all have ownership. The deadly temptation is to feed into the lie that racism has abolished–and with out any real sacrifice on our part. How lovely! In many ways, I see how the inauguration of a black man can serve as a double edged sword. While in many valid ways it shows progress, it also provides the temptation for evangelicals (and beyond) to sit back and see this as the end of a very long, very arduous, very critical journey that we are still very much on (as you very articulated very affectively).

    The question you posed sums it up well: how many neighborhoods would celebrate in community or appreciate in value over the arrival of a black family now that there is a black president? This is just one evidence of many that racism is much much too deep to be absolved over Obama’s election. My main concern is this: we must still understand that we as individuals as part of the bigger systems (in our church, schools, neighborhoods, etc…) as still very much responsible for a continued, intentional journey to reconcile minorities with majorities, and it is deeply destructive to sit back and act as if we are no longer part of the problem now that there is a black man out there who we call “president”. Yes this shows a glimmer of hope, but my earnest prayer is that this lights the fire behind us to propel us with more intensity and vigor to love our neighbor, to serve minorities and allow them to serve us, to listen to one another, to earnestly seek solutions, rather than let the fire die because change is now no longer needed. This is the time when we must be encouraged and ignited for more change, not celebrate the consummation of a problem that once was and is no longer.

  3. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Thank you for your insights, Daniel. Dr. King’s vision was so complex and multi-faceted. The election of an African American man as President of the United States is very important, but there is still much more work needing to be done if King’s dream is to be fully realized.

  4. Karyn Hanson Says:

    Thank you Dan for your thoughtful and courageous writing. I am so glad you know your history! 🙂

    I have heard that Tim Wise has written a new book called “Between Barack and a Hard Spot.” He made a comment the last time I heard him speak suggesting that the very worst possible outcome of electing our first Black president would be folks thinking racism doesn’t exist any more. It is very dangerous to assume that a statistical outlier represents the experiences of the rest of the people in a group. I think the most important thing is the realization about how complex racism is. We hope we are making progress but many need to do a lot more learning. When Cornel West spoke in Portland he commented on the dilusion of progress. We often blindly believe that the only direction things will go is toward good. But we can take two steps forward and 3 back and the monster we are trying to get a hold of can completely morph into something else. We chase the traces left but the real thing eludes us.

    In my family there was a lot of crying on January 20th. It just kind of rose up out of the people I know and love. We all had someone that we wished were alive to see that day. One very strong and committed activist I know, a Black woman in whose face I often see a great weariness, simply said that she has started to notice that people look her in the eye more often now. She feels like she has suddenly appeared.

    Let’s remain vigilant while we also breath in this moment. I think it will strengthen us for the long haul.

  5. Bruce Johnson Says:

    I agree with you with what you have said. Seeing this from a black man’s (that’s what I am labeled although I am only 1/2 black like Obama and I am fairly proud of white family) point of view, many in the minority communities saw this as an end to an era and the start of something new. But being black, everyone assumed I voted for Obama. Like I’m going to vote for someone just based on his skin color?!? I think lots of blacks and other minorities did; just my assumption. That’s a form of racism.
    Honestly the election of Obama reminded me of the end of Return of the Jedi where all the beings from every planet was celebrating the end of the Empire. All the Star Wars junkies out there know that this is not the case. Yes it is monumental event but in the Star Wars universe, the dark side still exists. In our country, racism still exists.
    But the brilliant thing is, this election should be stirring believers to engage and encounter a lost, dark world. What an open door to talk to people. Thank you for your sharing that has spurred on discussion; as iron sharpens iron.

  6. Jim Shipley Says:

    Racisim will not be over until minorities choose for it to be over. Until personal responsibility is taken for their own well being and they refuse to be defined by the color of their skin this battle will rage on. No amout of money, government based program, shift in hiring practices, handouts, or education will change this. When minorities refuse to be defined by the color of their skin racisim will become irrelevant. As long as the cultural and racial divide is celebrated and minorities choose to be defined as “African Americans” instead of “Americans” the lie will be perpetuated. America will be judged for its culture of slavery and oppression of minorities, however, change can only happen when one takes personal responsibility and chooses to believe differently and act differently. As long as rap music celebrates a culture of perverse language and objectivication of women and as long as government dependency exists there will be no real change. The fact that people think that it matters what color of skin someone has in the whitehouse is racist. Again, change will come when a choice is made. You live in the house you choose to make.

  7. Daniel Fan Says:

    Jim:

    What does “American” mean to you?

    We are all hyphenated americans. It’s just that white people, through the power that they wield, have been able to shorten their moniker to “American.” That which is in power becomes the norm. In essence, whites have been able to naturalize that whichisn’t naturally occuring at all (white people in America). Instead of “Americans” being native americans, native americans are now “indians” (ironic given where India is, no?) and whites of european descent are now Americans.

    Really, whites residents in the state of America should refer to themselves as white-americans. Maybe that’s the start of ending racism in America? Putting aside modern day manifest destiny and realizing we are, mostly, all immigrants ourselves?

    You say that “Racisim will not be over until minorities choose for it to be over. Until personal responsibility is taken for their own well being and they refuse to be defined by the color of their skin this battle will rage on.”

    But racism isn’t merely about a simple self recognition of difference. If black people suddenly pretended to be white, that would not change their skin color, their hair, the shape of their noses. That would not prevent white people from seeing them as different, nor would it prevent white people from acting on this differences.

    If we examine in isolation the phenomenon of racism between blacks and whites we can clearly see that it wasn’t the black man who chose the path he was put on today. It’s not about a black man saying he’s different. It was about whites proclaiming how different they were. Slavery wasn’t a celebration of blackness. Jim Crow wasn’t the forerunner of Kwanza. Whites used their technological prowess to enforce a difference. It was the white man of the time who claimed he was different and that it was his right to keep slaves, displace native peoples from their lands, and create an empire that stretched, politically, from the East Coast, all the way to the Philippines.

    Truth be told, if racism was caused only by minorities talking about being minorities, racism would have been over a long time ago. It’s the same for poverty right? Maybe the Holocaust too? which was explicity racial. The killing fields of Cambodia? The Sabra and Shatila massacres? The Rape of Nanking? Sudan? The Bosnian ethnic cleansings? Apartheid?

    If the victims had just stood up and said “I’m mad as H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks and I’m not going to take it anymore!” none of those tragic events would have happened?

    I’m afraid not.

    Racism is the combination of differentiation based on outward physical attributes combined with an element of unequal power. Yes, personal decisions are a part of that matrix, but it also matters whose personal decision it is.

    A Waffen SS soldier holds the muzzle of his STG44 to the temple of an eight year old Jewish boy. who’s personal decision matters more? The boy? or the soldier? Do you believe that any amount of association that boy tries to make with that SS trooper will matter? “But sir! I’m a good nazi! I support the party–bang! Over. Finished. One more step on the road toward the “Final Solution.”

    It’s the same in America. If a white boss refuses to hire a black person for any reason, how much “I’m white” is going to convince that white boss? How much “I’m an american too?” on the part of that black man will change the white boss’s mind?

    What if someone told you that minorities couldn’t be Americans and couldn’t partake the greater prosperity and equality of America precisely because their skin was colored? That is the essence of racism.

    So, you see, if the victim of racism had the choice to overturn racism, racism wouldn’t be an issue. Don’t blame the victim.

    You are right about one thing though: change will come when a choice is made. Specifically change will come when everyone (both those with power and those without), together, chose to put away racial differences as a method of social, political, economic, and spiritual selection. Only then, will anyone truly be allowed to live in the the house, the neighborhood, the city, and the country he or she choses.

  8. Bryan Dormaier Says:

    Daniel, thanks for your reflection and your comments on this.

    I remember listening to people saying how the election of Obama was signaling the end of election after the election and thinking to myself “oh no! I really hope we don’t let this lead to an apathy about racism.”

    I am reminded of a speech Bob Dylan did shortly after Kennedy was assassinated where he stated that he saw some of himself, and some of the times in Lee Harvey Oswald. I find this to be an incisive comment about how we move forward, which is to see how we really aren’t that different from the worst, to own it and to actively work against it.

    As long as there are people who believe the problem is in those others, be it whites that see it in “those racists,” minorities, etc, we perpetuate the very thing that leads to racism, an us vs. them thinking that says somehow “I am different than them. I am better than them.”

    Growing up, I would never have thought of myself as a racist, it was easy, I lived in an almost all white farm town. I didn’t really realize the racist tendencies in myself until a couple years ago, working on a strawberry farm with all hispanic workers. As I worked with these workers, almost immediately I found myself having to deal with stereotypes of young hispanic men being thugs, and my being distrustful towards migrant workers. Mind you, there’s no way before this experience I would have even thought of myself as being anywhere near racist. But that experience was very enlightening for me, because it informed me that at some level there’s a root in racism that is a fear of the other, anyone who is different than me. Only when I name that in myself, and confront it, do I have a chance to make any progress on it.

  9. Did Lincoln Die in Vain? | New Wine, New Wineskins Says:

    […] country and as the church in this country (See the consumingjesus.org post by Daniel Fan titled “Is Racism Over Now That a Black Man is President of the United States?”. See also the link to The Oregonian “Opinion” piece by Clifford Chappell titled “Is Racism […]

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