Post-racial America?

What will change for Americans now that their President has more melanin in his skin?

What will change for Americans now that their President has more melanin in his skin?

It could have been mistaken for a religious pilgrimage. The spirit of the crowds that gathered was not loudly partisan. There was giddiness to be sure, but the overriding feeling was solemn. The sense of History Being Made was on every corner, from the Sunday-best hats and cashmere coats in the crowd to the inescapable commemorative Obamabilia being hawked everywhere. A desire among the crowds who braved the cold to be merely present, to bear witness, to breathe the same air, to be part of this national ceremony that promised a renewal, a national resurrection of sorts. In an America beaten down by recession and wars, they had come to see with their own eyes the making of the First Black President.

As many as two million people were present for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Two days before, some 400,000 had come together for a concert at the Doric temple columns of the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed in 1963 that he had a dream, and now the son of a white mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya was in the process of fulfilling it. Obama’s face was everywhere—on the massive banners draping the neoclassical columns of the white monumental buildings in the city, on buttons, T-shirts, a sea of magazine covers, his smile emblazoned on everything from tote bags to earrings.

His omnipresent iconic image has been compared to the propaganda posters of a Third World dictator. But the images around Washington were not authoritarian, or menacing; often they were downright devotional, showing Obama with his eyes uplifted, almost Christ-like, as if in private consultation with the heavens. While the religious overtones of his enthusiastic following have been compared to a cult of personality, and Oprah Winfrey’s description of him as “The One” became the target of partisan mockery, the inauguration, more crowded and emotionally charged than any in memory, suggested that the excitement was less about the cult of Obama than about a centuries-awaited ritual for the nation.

The First Black President. The sin of slavery—could it be finally expiated? The parade and the pomp, while marking a long-awaited end of the Bush era, seemed to mark something deeper, a purification of the original sin: a nation built in part on slavery and in which blacks in many southern states did not win a meaningful right to vote until 1965. Was that sense of cleansing real, or the self-delusion of those who had made this moment happen: black and white Americans alike?

Certainly for black Americans, Inauguration Day, with its embossed invitations and elaborate balls, was the grandest possible statement, broadcast across the globe and repudiating the myth of black inferiority, of underachievement, of the various historical stigmas associated with dark skin. But the ritual, presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and celebrated with an ecstatic parade, was uplifting to white Americans as well—marking an end to their moral inferiority, and a declaration of their virtue. “In the excitement around Obama’s election there is a lot of self-flattery,” observes Shelby Steele, a scholar in race relations at the Hoover Institution who, like Obama, is biracial. “The whites are proud of themselves. It’s almost like a white pride day.”

Of course, African-Americans played a crucial role in electing Obama—coming out in full force during crucial votes in the Democratic primary and casting near-unanimous votes in his favour during the general election. But in a country that is still predominantly white, it was white voters whom he had to win over. Obama did so by intentionally presenting himself as a candidate for all Americans, playing down his race until he was forced to deal with it in a speech after his black pastor’s comments became a source of controversy. Steele calls Obama an impeccable “bargainer”—who tells white Americans, “I won’t rub the legacy of racism in your face if you don’t hold my race against me.”

But Steele is one of the observers (others include some supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton) who argue that Obama was elected because of his race, not in spite of it. “This is a measure of how much whites have lived under a presumption of racism,” he says. “That they have lived under this accusation and it has been a real tension in white American life. A vote for Obama is an opportunity for whites to say, ‘See, I’m not racist, I am innocent.’ ”

Obama’s meteoric rise could not have happened to a white politician, he insists. “You don’t come from a backbench in the Illinois state legislature, and four years later you’re walking into the White House. He’s talented but not that talented. There is a hunger in white America to make this kind of a statement—and that is the wave that brought him forward.”

At a forum on race at Howard University, the day before the inauguration, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who ran for the presidency in 1984 and 1988, said Obama’s success was due in part to black pride and a longing for “redemption” among whites. “It was the uniqueness of his personality,” Jackson said, “plus pride, plus redemption—plus, for some, desperation.”

So what will change for black and white Americans, now that their president has more melanin in his skin? For all the hype about Obama ushering in a “post-racial” America, the racial gaps remain profound. African-American men are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites. More than twice as many black babies are born out of wedlock than their white counterparts. Black students trail whites on standardized test scores by wide margins. Clarence Walker, a specialist in African-American history at the University of California at Davis, dismisses talk of a “post-racial” society as “bulls–t.” “The U.S. has come to recognize it is multiracial. But it is not post-racial. To say it is post-racial is like saying the world is post-nationalist!”

In the sky-high expectations surrounding Obama, Walker sees a return to a historical trope of a virtuous, redemptive black man such as that portrayed in novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe. “In the 19th century there was a romantic racialism among abolitionists. They believed that black people, children and women had a more Christian spirit than ordinary white folks and certainly white men. There is a bad tendency in America—and Obama’s campaign did this—to go back to this notion of the Christ-like negro,” says Walker, author of Mongrel Nation: the America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemming. The excitement around the inauguration may be the high-water mark for Obama, Walker adds: “I tend to think that sort of halo of Christ-likeness will dissipate with time and he’ll come to be seen as just another politician. If he’s anything less than Christ-like they will jump on him. The American people are very fickle about these sorts of things.”

Civil rights leaders too emphasize that America will not wake up this week and see skin colour magically cease to matter. Speaking last week to the ceremonial swearing-in of the congressional black caucus, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, said that his father’s “dream has not been fulfilled, even though a significant aspect of that dream has been fulfilled.” He added, “As long as there are 37 plus million people living in poverty, the dream will not be fulfilled. As long as we live in a nation where 47 plus million people have no health insurance, the dream has not been fulfilled. As long as we live in a nation where the criminal justice system has millions of people and just about 50 per cent of those people are people of colour, the dream will not be fulfilled.”

And for all the talk of post-racialism, the power of old-school racial politics has been on display in Illinois, where Gov. Rod Blagojevich, arrested on federal charges of trying to sell an appointment to Obama’s Senate seat, has been impeached and will now face charges in the state senate. Blagojevich has defied calls to step down, and picked a black former state attorney general, Roland Burris, for the seat—which would make him, with Obama’s departure, the only black senator. Congressional Democrats had vowed not to seat any pick by the disgraced governor. But Bobby Rush, a black congressman from a district on the South Side of Chicago, told a press conference: “I don’t think that anyone, any U.S. senator who is sitting right now, would want to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated in the U.S. Senate. I don’t think they want to go on record doing that.” After senators physically prevented Burris from entering the Senate, Rush upped the rhetoric. “It reminded me of the dogs being sicced on children in Birmingham, Alabama. That’s what it reminded me of,” he told Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball. Burris was eventually seated.

Steele is skeptical that much will change because of the simple fact of the President’s race. “The relations between whites and blacks will be about the same that they are now,” he says. “On a level of cultural symbolism it is obviously important; it makes a statement. But I think we’re going to discover that cultural symbolism is not an agent of change. Change happens down on the ground in a cultural level in its own way, in its own time. The academic gap between black and white students is not going to vanish. Al Sharpton or someone like that, who is a protester and challenger, is going to remain activist. Obama will continue to support race-based affirmative action, which is a racially divisive policy. Whites don’t like it but he’ll keep it around to keep blacks happy. And he’ll avoid talking about it as much as he can,” predicts Steele.

The change that Obama represents has already taken place, he says. Steele penned a book in 2007 entitled Bound Man: Why We are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. (He says he regrets the title and never doubted that Obama could get elected.) “I think Obama documents a cultural change that long ago happened—I think a black man who is a bargainer could have been elected 25 years ago. I think Colin Powell could have easily beaten a weak Bill Clinton in 1996. This moral evolution in white America that makes it possible for a black man to be elected has already happened. I think Obama only documents that.”

And yet, there are other visible changes—perhaps most perceptible among the black middle and upper class. The prevalence of African-American commentators on television has never been higher. The Washington Post recently chronicled the efforts of the city’s society hostesses clamouring to find a greater racial balance at dinners, the all-white soiree now being hopelessly outdated. And mothers of black teenagers talk with glee that their sons are seeking to emulate the style of the President, and not entertainers or athletes.

The political possibilities for blacks appear redefined. In 2007, an African-American state senator in South Carolina, Robert Ford, endorsed Hillary Clinton and said Obama was unelectable because of his race. “It’s a slim possibility for him to get the nomination, but then everybody else is doomed,” Ford said then. “Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose—because he’s black and he’s top of the ticket. We’d lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything. I’m a gambling man. I love Obama. But I’m not going to kill myself.” Today, Ford is running for governor.

Obama has made an art of navigating between the white culture of his Kansan mother who raised him, and the inheritance of his Kenyan father. It has been the stuff of his journey, the content of his memoir that made him millions, the Democratic convention speech in 2004 that made him a household name, and the current that pushed along his campaign. He has taken great pains in the campaign and during the transition to emphasize that his presidency is for all people. There was even a measure of flattery for white audiences in his stock stump-speech line: “Only in America is my story possible.” (At the Howard University forum, Princeton professor Cornel West said he didn’t buy the rhetoric when he first heard Obama speak in 2004. “When I heard him say America is a ‘magical place,’ I said what America are you talking about now, Negro? Come on now. Come on now!”)

At the massive concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd was heavily African-American. But Obama’s team did not play up the racial significance of the venue or the event. The concert was pointedly entitled “We Are One”; U2 was there, performing their song One. The day before his inauguration, a holiday in honour of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Obama issued a statement honouring King that did not include the words black, African-American, or even race. Instead, he talked about King’s “life lived in service to others” and promoted volunteerism. He talked about unity, emphasizing that “our destinies are inextricably linked,” and called on Americans to “remember King’s lesson—that our separate dreams are really one.”

The historian Walker, who has co-written a book on Obama and his pastor, Wright, says that Obama’s language is deliberately vague. “You have to learn to finesse the issues and talk in generalities and high-flying phrases. The language has become an Aesopian language—the intention is hidden in what he is saying,” Walker notes. “He is a centrist and he will pursue policies that will be more liberal than Bush, but he’s not going to do anything wild like declare universal Kwanza or something.” Yet it will be a difficult balance, he says. “In the long term, given the desperate straits of many black people, he will have to speak out on racial issues forcefully. It will be expected by black people of him,” Walker says.

But for many of those who came out to celebrate Obama in Washington this week, there was little doubt that the First Black President would make a difference. “It will change lives,” said Tarik Muhammad, a black 35-year-old school bus driver in Washington. “It will change how people look at other people and how people deal with each other in business and everything. It will change attitudes, relationships, the way people view people of other races. I do see it personally.” It would take him time to get used to the idea of a black president, Muhammad said. “It’s kind of hard to take in. It’s like a dream.”

Robert Riddick, a 40-year-old heavy equipment operator from Woodbridge, Va., said Obama’s election changes the way African-Americans feel in their own country. “It’s as if we can unpack our bags now. We are equal now,” said Riddick, adding that the same holds true for all racial minorities. “I hope the next president is Hispanic. I hope there is a Chinese one and a Japanese one,” he added. His fiancée, Kim Brown, who is white, agreed, “I am excited. It’s a long time coming. I think there will be a lot of equality now. I think there will be more respect for everyone, black, white, yellow, green.”

Some even believe the new face of America will help rehabilitate the country’s image abroad, which has been battered since the Iraq invasion and the Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo scandals. “I think it’s beyond symbolic—I think having an African-American president will send a positive message to the entire world that the U.S. can look beyond colour and have someone of African descent rise to the highest office in the nation,” said Adrian Roberts, 44, who works in technology in New York City.“Given that the rest of the world is largely a community of people of colour, it will be positive,” added Roberts, who is black.

Yvonne Matinyi, an architect from Tanzania who works in Silver Spring, Md., said Obama had already changed America’s image. “Now that people see there is a black president in America, they see anything is possible.” She also noted that “Obama is a celebrity in Tanzania. This is an inspiration for all.”

The optics are certainly good: Obama presents an erudite and bookish, yet cool and stylish, image of masculinity. And the elegant family portrait of the Harvard Law School-trained Obamas, with their two lovely daughters who will be attending the same private school that educated Chelsea Clinton, is an image whose power should not be underestimated, said Adrian Roberts. “Now you see an African-American family and what it can look like, instead of the negative stereotypes portrayed on TV in terms of gang violence and people living in poverty,” he said. “Michelle and Barack both went to Ivy League schools, got a great education, and are raising two beautiful girls. It sends a message to the world that African-Americans are doing it—and are doing it well,” he said.

Others said that Obama’s success sends a message of self-empowerment to African-Americans. “It definitely changes people’s excuses and their saying there is inequity, because now we do have equity for the races in our nation,” said Bill Wright, 53, a network engineer for the phone company Sprint from Gaithersburg, Md. “Not that all prejudice is gone, but it’s a reckoning for America to see a black man in the office. There’s no excuses for black people particularly, who feel they have been held down,” said Wright, who is black. “We can achieve. Just like the slogan goes: yes we can!”

Not everyone was fixated on Obama’s race, however. Angela Owens, a 40-year-old employee of the federal Bureau of Prisons in northern Virginia, said she was more excited by the end of the Bush era than by the President’s race. “It’s not so much his being an African-American president—I’m just excited to have a Democrat,” said Owens, who is black. For older generations, she said, the feelings may be different. But she was excited by Obama’s message of unity. “It’s a spirit of having someone in office who wants to reach out—to all people.”