On election night, I joined thousands of revelers in the streets of Washington, DC in a spontaneous celebration of Barack Obama’s presidential victory. And we were not alone: similar celebrations erupted all across the United States and around the world. Seventy-seven days later, the spectacle was repeated on an even grander scale as over a million people streamed into DC to witness the inauguration, and millions more around the world watched it on television and computer screens. The inauguration of Barack Obama was hailed as a truly historic occasion, a sign that America had changed, that we had entered a post-racist era. We united in self-congratulation as we watched Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi end their rendition of Sam Cooke’s classic with the line, “a change has come, ” while the more eschatologically minded described Mr. Obama’s ascension to the presidency as nothing less than the fulfilment of Martin Luther King’s prophetic dream. But have we really overcome?
Well, if news headlines from around the country are any indication, we still have a long way to go. It will take more than a changing of the guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to fix what ails our country because, while Obama’s victory is significant for many reasons, it has not brought us into a post-racist world.
Take, for example, what is taking place in Maricopa County, Arizona, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio—who already has a reputation for brutally mistreating undocumented county residents—sank to hitherto unimaginable depths. A short while ago, the tough-on-immigration sheriff marched over 200 immigration detainees (mainly Latino men) from the county jail to a tent city created just for them. Detainees were dressed in old-time striped prison uniforms and paraded publicly to the tent city, which is surrounded by an electric fence. In the past, the sheriff’s department has caught flak for racial profiling and disproportionately targeting Latinos for arrest and harrassment. There have also been numberous reports of mistreatment of detainees, who have been hog-tied, beaten, and forced to work in chain gangs. To put things in perspective: 70% of Arpaio’s detainees have not been tried or convicted of any offense! So much for the American ideal of “innocent until proven guilty.” One doesn’t have to be a holocaust scholar to be sickened by Sheriff Arpaio’s pogrom against Maricopa County’s Latinos.
The situation is no better on the other side of the country where Jack Lacy, the ex-president of Hamilton Township in New Jersey, was forced to resign after sending an e-mail in which he compared President Obama’s inauguration to the evacuation of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. According to Lacy, “How can two million blacks get into Washington, D.C., in sub zero (temperatures) in one day when 200,000 couldn’t get out of New Orleans at 85 degrees with four days notice?” So . . . when over a million Black people gathered in DC to celebrate what could be the greatest day in the history of Black America since emancipation, Jack Lacy saw fit to compare it to what was possibly the worst time in recent Black American history.
And finally, who can forget the spate of hate crimes that erupted around the election? In Long Island, New York, a gang of teens went on an immigrant-bashing spree that culminated in the death of Marcelo Lucero. Another case involved a Black family of Obama supporters in New Jersey who found a burnt cross on their lawn a few days after the election. On Staten Island, New York, a Black man was beaten by two teenagers: during the beating, they insulted their victim with racial slurs and called him “Obama.” It’s worth noting that these are not isolated incidents, the death throes of bigotry in a post-racist America. In fact, there was a spike in hate crimes and ethnic intimidation around the country, according to a report put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
There are countless other examples but there’s no need to recount more, because those who share my outlook already know about them, and those who don’t cannot be convinced. Suffice to say, attitudes from racial America have been effortlessly carried over into post-racial America, and eliminating these attitudes will take much more than a Black family in the White House. America is still America and, lest we forget, Obama did not get 100% of the votes cast. Far from it. He got only slightly over half. Yet watching the nation bask in collective self-congratulation, one might be forgiven for thinking that Americans had—by the mere act of electing the first Black president in our nation’s history—accomplished nothing less than the elimination of racism from the face of the earth.
Part of the explanation for this response lies in Americans’ limited understanding of racism. Many Americans understand racism simply as namecalling or violence. Other Americans see racism as the absence of Black people or other people of color in positions of power. Racism is both these things, of course, but it is also much more. However, for the average American, who understands racism as merely the absence of colored people in positions of power, the Obama presidency is a major blow against racism: some of the more sanguine of that lot even consider it a fatal blow. But there’s more to this racism-is-dead rhetoric. The claim that America has entered a post-racist era is nothing less than an extension of our national mythology.
Our nation’s myths tell us that we are a special nation destined to blaze a unique trail in the world. America, we are often reminded, is a city on a hill, a shining beacon for the world. Everything we do, everything to do with America, is further proof of our unique place in the world. Even when we are doing wrong, it’s gets spun as proof of our inherent greatness. At any given point in our history, for instance, the majority of Americans have tolerated unimaginable injustices carried out against minorities—enslavement, segration, lynching, ethnic cleansing, torture, the racist “war on drugs,” unprovoked war against Iraq, illegal roundups of undocumented immigrants. Yet when a few courageous individuals lay their lives and freedom on the line to end some form of injustice, we unite in collective self-congratulation, holding up the victory as proof of how great our country is.
But is the constant need for some to triumph over injustice really proof of America’s greatness? Clearly, that is what the myth-makers would have us believe. After all, we are reminded, only a great society would give a dedicated handful of people the chance to risk their lives and liberty in the fight against state-sanctioned injustice. We point to people like Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks as proof of America’s greatness, a place in which even those who are brutalized by the system can, through superhuman acts of heroism, become full citizens. Yet we never stop to wonder why these people were, in the first place, living in a society in which they were compelled to stand up and demand that their dignity and inherent humanity be recognized. Why have minorities in America had to exert heroic efforts just to be recognized as full human beings and full citizens? What does it say about America that she has demanded nothing less than heroism from non-White people whenever they have aspired to nothing more than the chance to live as ordinary people? Would Frederick Douglass have chosen to be born a slave just for the chance to achieve greatness by rising from slave to human? Would Rosa Parks not have preferred to live in a society in which heroism was not a prerequesite for being able to sit wherever one pleased? Naturally, our myth-makers never answer these questions. Hell, they never even ask them. Instead, they tell us only that America is a great country in which Black people like Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass can become national heroes. But they never tell us why the systems of injustice under which they suffered—which forced them to become heroic—came to be so widely accepted in the first place.
And so the myth-makers are spinning the story of Barack Obama, the first Black president . . . of the United States, anyway, because many other countries have had Black presidents. The difference is that in most of these countries, White privilege and racism were never so institutionalized that it became remarkable that a non-White person would rise to the ranks of the presidency. The fact that we find it so remarkable that America actually has a Black president says a lot about our society. But our nation’s myth-makers would rather ignore this inconvenient truth, choosing to remind us instead that Obama’s victory is further proof of how great our country is.
But the Sherriff Arpaios and Jack Lacys of the world remind us of something else. They remind us that we still have a long, long way to go.