November 4, 2008, will go down in American history as a landmark day. Now that we have elected 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.
In his March speech on race, Barack Obama acknowledged — as others have before him — that racism is America’s original sin. The framers of the Constitution allowed slavery to remain in a nation founded on the highest principles of liberty and freedom. This decision rendered blacks held in slavery to be property, not privy to the most basic human rights. It took nearly a century for African Americans to gain basic citizenship rights — at least in theory — with the ratification of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, was supposed to ensure that blacks had 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 which stipulated that if your grandfather couldn’t vote, neither could you; and literacy tests that only blacks 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 remarkable to think that when President-elect Obama was born in 1961, many African Americans were routinely kept from the polls, let alone public office. In many states, miscegenation laws would have made his parents’ marriage illegal; it wasn’t until 1967 that the aptly named Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia ensured the right of interracial couples to marry.
Within Barack Obama’s lifetime, African Americans have gone from winning basic voting rights to holding seats in state and national legislatures, becoming governors (though this has only happened four times), and now being elected president. This election has embodied Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech (given when Obama was two years old), 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 of their reluctance to vote for Obama because of his race. One woman in rural Virginia, a registered Democrat, shared her hesitation with National Public Radio:
“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.”
The comment reflected concerns that somehow “his people” — and thus his interests — were not American interests. And this exchange on a forum for The Sean Hannity Show suggested that Obama might send money away to Africa because of his family background. Racial stereotypes also surfaced, when a California Republican club distributed a cartoon of a food stamp bearing Obama’s face alongside images of watermelon and fried chicken. 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 hanging an Obama “ghost” from a noose in his front yard, telling reporters he did it because he didn’t 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 also have significant European ancestry), 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 G.I. 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 Obama’s mother’s family was apparently of modest means, they had opportunities to make it into the middle class that likely wouldn’t have been available had they been black. Ironically, genealogical research revealed that Obama is also the descendant of slaveholders.
President-elect Barack Obama grew up learning to navigate within the world of whites, something many African Americans have historically been kept separate from, due to residential segregation. As Obama wrote 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” by an interviewee in a 2000 Chicago Reader article, he has faced the criticism of not being “black enough.”
Both Obama’s 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.
Karen Sternheimer, sociologist in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is an expert on cultural diversity, and American celebrity culture. Other columns by Sternheimer may be found on her Everyday Sociology Blog.