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Transcending Race?: Obama’s Victory & the “End” of Racism


Media commentary on the significance of an Obama Presidency remains relevant in light of America‘s continued problems with racism.  What will Obama do to tackle questions racial bigotry that have so long haunted American politics?  Historian and progressive commentator Paul Street draws attention to America‘s continued problems with "structural racism," in his superb book: Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History.  Structural racism is such a dangerous phenomenon because it’s implicitly embedded within America‘s major political, economic, and social institutions.  As Street explains: structural racism "generates racially disparate results even without racist intent"; it represents a sort of "state of mind on the part of white actors." 

 

Structural racism persists today, in large part because of the continued insistence of whites that the U.S. has transcended, or gotten beyond race, despite the widespread and appalling prevalence of segregation and discrimination.  Nowhere are promises of the "end of race" better represented than in pro-Obama post-electoral celebrations in corporate media outlets such as CNN.  CNN correspondent Candy Crowley, for example, refers to America‘s experiences with racism as a thing of the past by describing Obama as "born when much of the country was still segregated, as the son of a white woman and a black man."  Such a statement is extremely naïve and irresponsible, especially when reporters fail to present any evidence that segregation no longer exists today.

 

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 U.S. political office, however, should not be taken as evidence that structural racism has come to an end.  One would never know that deep-seated racism persists, however, by following CNN’s reporting of the election. Commentators and guests routinely promised the end of race in American politics in the days following November 4th.  CNN Guest Colin Powell explained that "President-elect Obama did not put himself forward as an African-American president.  He put himself forward as an American who happened to be black."  CNN anchor John Roberts wondered "whether or not we’re in a post-racial era" following an Obama victory that has broken the "ultimate glass ceiling" for African Americans.  Conservative John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute agreed with Roberts, arguing that "I think we can now start looking at real problems such as how to help people who need help, and stop obsessing over things like the Bradley Effect and racism out there." 

 

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 America‘s continued problems with institutionalized racism:

 

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 Chicago was black or Hispanic, with less than 10 percent white.  Similarly in Washington D.C., St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Detroit, Baltimore, and New York City, blacks and Hispanics accounted for between 79-96 percent of public school enrollment.

 

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 Chicago, African American households are estimated to earn just 66.6 percent of that earned by white households. 

 

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 Chicago, the problem is pronounced.  The Justice Department identified the city in the 1980s for its "extreme residential segregation," with 80 percent of blacks being located within city limits, and only 1.2 percent in surrounding DuPage County (where many of the wealthy suburbs are located).  Black city residents were historically steered away from the suburbs due to threats of white violence, and by racist real estate agents.  This segregation problem continued in the 1990s, although not to such extremes as in earlier periods.  Between 1993-1999, 80 percent of homes bought by whites were in the suburbs, as compared to 56 percent of homes purchased by African Americans being located in the suburbs.  Chicago remains the 5th most segregated metropolitan area in the country, a testimony to the continued problem of segregation in other cities as well.

 

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] Chicago‘s local news" during the 1990s.  In stories on crime, "white victims outnumbered blacks in news reports…even though blacks in Chicago and most core cities are more likely to be victimized."  This study found that, overall, "stories featuring black victims of violence were consistently shorter than those that focused on white victims, with a total story time ratio imbalance of 2:1 in favor of whites."  Cultural-media stereotypes against blacks, framing them as a animal-like threats to law and order, have also been documented elsewhere (for example, see my article: "Gaming the Ghetto: Grand Theft Auto IV, Racist Media, and the Concrete Jungle").

 

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 America‘s embedded racist institutions.  As progressives specifically, and compassionate human beings more generally, our commitment to fighting racism needs to move beyond the media’s identify-based racial politics.  Simply electing a black man to the presidency does not guarantee that the end of racism is near.

 

 

 

Anthony DiMaggio teaches American Government and Politics of the Developing World at Illinois State University.  His book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror" will be released in paperback this December.  He can be reached at: [email protected]

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