The Disillusioning Reality of Obama’s Not-So-Post-Racial America
Barack Obama’s presidency was widely viewed as an allegory of the United States’ pursuit of overcoming its racist history and evolving into a post-racial nation offering equal opportunities to all its citizens, regardless of their racial affiliation. Many viewed his inauguration as the light at the end of the tunnel following centuries of oppression, overt and systemic racism. However, his milestone of a presidency had largely differing implications for White and Black Americans. It was predominantly the White majority that held the notion that the first Black president was the embodiment of a new Egalitarian era. This belief can be described as either optimistic or oblivious to the harsh reality of the adversities that are ubiquitous to the Black community.
Given the established disparities in perceptions of racism between White and Black Americans, the heightened visibility of an exceptionally successful Black man had interesting consequences for White Americans. Barack Obama’s election bore with it an afterglow of the United States’ feigned metamorphosis into a post-racial nation, led by the very embodiment of the seemingly established racial equality. Barack Obama acknowledged this misconception with the following words: “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”
“Barack Obama’s election bore with it an afterglow of the United States’ feigned metamorphosis into a post-racial nation, led by the very embodiment of the seemingly established racial equality.”
The belief that racism is merely a stain that taints the long-gone history of the US, can be encompassed by the concept of symbolic racism. It is coined by the sentiment that racial minorities no longer face discrimination and in fact, have even gained an unfair advantage when compared to the majority group (Ramasubramanian & Martinez, 2017). This notion is supported by Lybarger and Monteith (2011) who found that Barack Obama’s presidency and the associated salience of an exceptionally accomplished Black exemplar fueled the idea that “discrimination is a bygone” (Lybarger & Monteith, 2011, p. 651). This conviction is accompanied by the belief that any remaining injustices are direct consequences of Black individuals’ personal inadequacies. Thus, the Obama administration had the unexpected consequence of increased Anti-Black sentiment, gently tucked away in the subtlety of symbolic racism. A rather daunting consequence of this was showcased by Kaiser et al. (2009), who found that White Americans felt a decreased necessity to support policies in favor of racial equality.
“A rather daunting consequence of this was showcased by Kaiser et al. (2009), who found that White Americans felt a decreased necessity to support policies in favor of racial equality.”
The first-ever presidency of a Black man thus entailed a surprising dichotomy: While it can be marked as a milestone in America’s pursuit of racial justice, it also resulted in the illusion that the long-awaited dream of racial equality was finally attained. In view of the systemic injustices that Black individuals continue to face, the dream of equality seems to remain but a faint light at the end of the rocky tunnel, at least for the time being.
Kaiser, C. R., Drury, B. J., Spalding, K. E., Cheryan, S., & O’Brien, L. T. (2009). The ironic consequences of Obama’s election: Decreased support for social justice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 556−559.
Lybarger, J. E., & Monteith, M. J. (2011). The effect of Obama saliency on individual-level racial bias: Silver bullet or smokescreen? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(3), 647–652. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.1016/j.jesp.2010.12.001
Ramasubramanian, S., & Martinez, A. R. (2017). News framing of Obama, racialized scrutiny, and symbolic racism. Howard Journal of Communications, 28(1), 36–54. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.1080/10646175.2016.1235519