Transcending Race?: Obama's Victory & the "End" of Racism
Media commentary on the significance of an Obama Presidency remains relevant in light of
Structural racism persists today, in large part because of the continued insistence of whites that the
It has become commonplace in media debates to refer to segregation and racism as ancient history. Following the November 4th election, CNN anchors consistently called back to the Civil Rights era (during the 1950s and 1960s and earlier), interviewing African Americans who suffered under segregation. The choice has been to focus on segregation as a thing of the past, rather than to discuss its continuation today. The intent is clear enough: the message is sent that Americans are finally transcending, or have transcended race.
But have we really? It is certainly a milestone that Americans, in large numbers, came together and voted for an African American for President. I remember when I was in high school in the mid 1990s, listening to my U.S. History teacher promise us that Americans could never elect a black president (this, he claimed, was impossible since African Americans represent a minority of the citizenry, at only 13% of the total public, and since people would never vote for a minority candidate). We've certainly come a long way in getting beyond such parochial and racist thinking.
The milestone of the election of an African American to the highest
In the four days following the election, CNN made every effort to portray Americans as having moved beyond racism and bigotry. During this period, CNN ran 39 programs that referenced the "historic" victory of Obama as the nation's first black president. Sadly, just three of these programs (or 7 percent of the stories) contained any reference to problems of structural racism, such as: continued housing and education segregation, disparity in pay between blacks and whites, racist media portrayals of African Americans, and continued discrimination against blacks in the criminal justice system.
We should make every effort to reject CNN's contention that American racism has reached its final days. Consider some of the following statistics, which elaborate upon
Education Inequality & Segregation: According to a 2006 Chicago Tribune report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, of 100 incoming Chicago Public School (CPS) freshmen, only six are predicted to earn a bachelor's degree by their mid 20s. Disturbingly, only three in 100 black or Latin men in the CPS system are predicted to earn a bachelor's by age 25. Nationwide, education-based segregation is rampant. In 2003, 87 percent of public school enrollment in the city of
Earnings Inequality: According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, poverty among black children remains dire: "while the largest group of children in low income families is white, black and Latino children are significantly more likely to live in low income families…58 percent of all black children (up four percent from 2001-2002) and 62 percent of all Latin children, compared to only 25 percent of white children, lived in low income families. In terms of general earnings throughout
Legal Discrimination: Legal cases involving the death penalty have long been known to discriminate along class and color lines. Minorities and the poor are disproportionately likely to be sentenced to death (as compared to whites), and much of this trend has to do with systematic racism and discrimination. For example, in the 1987 Supreme Court case of Mccleskey v. Kemp, the defense attorney presented evidence from a study of 2,484 murder cases in Georgia from 1973-1979. Controlling for 230 intervening variables, the study found that blacks were systematically more likely than whites to be sentenced to death. The probability of being sentenced to death was 4.3 times larger for defendants whose alleged victims were white than for defendants whose alleged victims were black. Prosecutors pursued the death penalty in nearly 75 percent of cases with black defendants and white victims, contrasted with 32 percent of cases in which the defendant and victims were white.
Housing Discrimination & Segregation: Race based housing segregation has long been a major national problem. In Obama's home city of
Media Racism: Academic studies have also highlighted the corporate media's problems with race. One study by scholars Robert Entman and Andy Rojecki found a strong "racial subtext [in]
Upon reflecting on the lack of substance on issues of race in CNN and other media reporting, we are left with an important question: what exactly is the significance of Obama's election for fighting racism? As I have argued in other pieces, media editorials have largely framed race in this election as an issue of identity politics. Supposedly, Obama's blackness represents a major threat to our culture of racism. Presumably, voters should view this election as historic simply because Obama is a black man, not because his status as an African American means he will tackle the problem of structural racism.
Racism, for the most part, either no longer exists in the eyes of the punditry, or is on the way out as a political issue. We have now entered the "post-racial era," in the eyes of CNN. Such editorializing should be disturbing for those who are interested in fighting
Anthony DiMaggio teaches American Government and Politics of the Developing World at