Should Barack Obama be elected President of the United States in November, the world will have not only the first black President of the USA but the first black leader of a world super power. This would undoubtedly be a welcome and symbolic achievement but one I feel is coming to soon for America as the racism that haunted it in the 1950’s still remains but in a very different form: institutional racism. There are those who have naievely claimed that the election of Barack Obama would mark an end to the racial divide in American politics and society. In reality however I believe an Obama presidency will have the reverse effect. Race relations will deteriorate or remain static.
The New York times has just issued a poll which claims that majorities of both whites and blacks agree that the country might be ready for a black president however the consensus between blacks and whites ends there. The respondents perceptions of Obama and his Republican challenger McCain, break sharply along racial lines. The survey found that more than 80 percent of blacks said they had a favorable opinion of Obama, while among whites only about 30 percent said they viewed him favorably.
However the most telling of the results lay in the respondents feelings toward how they view race relations. A slight majority of whites believed race relations were good (55%) while only 29% of black respondents could agree. This represents a sharp racial divide because the fact remains that blacks do legitimately feel like an ‘underclass’ in American society and they are clinging on to Obama in the hope he will reverse the systemic and racial inequality potent in American society. An Obama Presidency represents a dangerous path for American race relations. I believe that should Obama be elected President then many white Americans will ignore the ever present systemic and institutional biases that exist in American society.
By electing a black president many whites will believe that they have somehow ‘reached the racial promised land’ and everything else will fall in to place. Indeed it has become customary in America to use popular and prominent figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Condi Rice and Colin Powell as examples of how race is no longer a barrier in America allowing whites to dismiss other legitimate racial issues. Obama risks joining this misleading list of ‘blacks who broke the barrier’. Real changes in racial inequality, like those of the 1950’s, have been stalled as on the surface things appear more equal than they have ever done while in reality things are far from equal.
Steve Sailer, a columnist for The American Conservative magazine, wrote last year that some whites who support Obama aren’t driven primarily by a desire for change they want something else Obama offers them: White Guilt Repellent. According to Sailer many whites want to be able to say, ‘I’m not one of those bad whites. …I voted for a black guy for president,’ They know that all is not well in American race relations and they feel that by voting for a black man as their President that guilt over the inequalities that remain between blacks and whites can be relieved. Even African American commentators such as Andra Gillespie agree that Obama’s success doesn’t mean America has become a ‘post-racial’ or hemogenous society. She says it may signal the decline of individual racism but not another form of discrimination: systemic racism. She believes Obama is a token gesture to distract attention from the real issues of racial inequality and his election would overshadow these issues.
Systemic racism is alive and well in America and she feels that Obama’s election will do little to combat this as he has yet to acknowledge it exists publicly. African Americans, and indeed many whites, are clinging on to Obama as they believe he will hearald a new dawn in American race relations. Many African Americans are sick of feeling like an underclass and to put a black man in the Oval Office for them would be a huge symbolic victory even if they aren’t quite sure who Obama is or what he stands for. This is exemplified by the support of leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who passionately want to see the day a black man walks in to the Oval Office.
However clearly all is not well in paradise after Jacksons now infamous remarks that he wants to cut ‘Obama’s nuts off’. The fact is, Jackson is backing him passionately because he knows how close they are to claiming the Oval Office and that historic symoblic victory. That is all an Obama victory will be: symbolic. Jackson doesn’t care who it is who takes the Oval Office, he doesn’t have to like them, they just have to be black. The reality of an Obama Presidency will be very different, I cannot see race relations improving much but I can see many blacks feeling even more let down that a black man could only get to the Oval Office by ‘acting white’.
Obama might be incredibly popular in Europe but Europe isn’t America. Obama’s support is slipping back home and a tight race is getting that bit tighter. At a time when the Democrats should be a shoe in for the presidency and with a leader as charismatic and internationally popular as Obama one has to question why the race is so close with latest polls putting the two nominess almost neck and neck. Since Barack Obama became the presumptive nominee for President the question on almost every commentators lips has been ‘Are the Americans ready to elect a black president?’ The very fact we have to ask that question shows they as individuals might be but America and its institutions certainly aren’t.