Posted by: mutantpoodle | November 14, 2008

A post-racial society?

obamaOne of the chestnuts that’s being roasted by the media these days is the notion that Barack Obama’s election signifies the destruction of a racial barrier in America. As, for example, in the November 5th New York Times headline, “Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls.”

Really?

It seems to me that we’ll know a racial barrier has fallen when people aren’t obsessed about whether it’s fallen; when members of the opposition party aren’t able to play on racial fears and stereotypes in an (unsuccessful) attempt to derail their non-white opponent, and when you don’t have to be one of the most phenomenally gifted politicians ever to win a Presidential election as a person of color.

For what it’s worth, I think Barack Obama carved a Barack Obama-sized hole in the vaunted “Racial Barrier”, and while I don’t, in any way, want to minimize this accomplishment and what it means for both white and African-Americans citizens of this country, it doesn’t mean we’re done figuring out race in America. As Ann at Feministing wrote,

…one person of color at the top does not mean the glass ceiling — or any other barrier — is gone. Yes, Obama surpassed that barrier. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still firmly in place. It doesn’t mean that now the floodgates are opened, and we now live in an America where race is no longer a factor. A few months ago, I wrote about this in the context of women in politics:

And to be totally fair, I don’t think Hillary Clinton’s nomination for president (or even her election as president) would have, in and of itself, shattered the glass ceiling, either. That’s because when we talk about the invisible ceiling holding women back, we’re talking about broad, systemic problems that can’t be solved by one woman, no matter how fierce.

One revelation from the long Democratic primary and the general election is that, as many of my female friends have pointed out, tolerance for misogyny far exceeds tolerance for racism. That’s the good news/bad news result of this election. If Barack Obama is a good to very good President – and he’ll need to be – the hole in our “racial barrier” will get bigger. But here’s my fear: because Barack Obama is a phenomenally intelligent and gifted politician, regardless of color, it will be too easy to separate him from black society – to say he’s not like “the rest of them.” That’s the flip side of the whole “Is Barack Obama black enough” meme that we saw discussed not too long ago. (In fairness to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote that piece and “hated that headline“, he discusses the issue more informally on his blog here.)

Or, put another way, I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that our first black President is one who faced questions about whether he was “black enough”.

I think it was Gloria Steinem – I’m not sure – who said, essentially, that she’d know that women had made it when mediocre women made it to the top. We’re not there yet. When a female – or black – version of George Bush makes it into the White House, that’s when those barriers will have fallen completely.

My suspicion – and I’m not saying this to pick on Republicans, really – is that we’ll get there with the Republican party. I think because the Democrats are tarred as practitioners of “interest group politics” (that is, interest groups without large amounts of money), a black or female Republican is inoculated against the fear that, once they get into office, they’ll turn history on its head and make the oppressor the oppressed, which is one articulated fear of many people who said they couldn’t vote for a black man as president. Alternatively, in fifty years or so, the integration and acceptance of black culture into the mainstream – prevalent now mostly in younger voters – will work its way up the demographic breakdowns and render this all moot.

Either way, we have a distance to travel.

P.S. If it’s any comfort, so does the rest of the world.

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