When Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in 2008, it seemed to many Americans that a new age had dawned. Only a few decades earlier, African Americans were marching in Washington to gain civil rights, and that a black man could rise to the highest office in the nation signaled a final victory for equality. At the same time, opposing political forces, while rarely overtly referring to race, have exploited the lingering resentment within a largely white population to actually rekindle racism. Racist hate crimes still occur, and controversy over their numbers points to levels of denial that further reveal racism. The unfortunate reality is that, even as Obama’s twin administrations translate to vastly significant progress, this authority of one black man has served to exacerbate strains of racism still very present in the fabric of American society. The elections of President Obama do not mean that racism in the U.S. is a thing of the past, but that it is instead more under the surface, and consequently more potentially explosive.
On one level, and as is famously known, the first election of President Obama was a cause for national celebration, in terms of its being perceived and presented as a final triumph over the racist divisions that have long troubled the nation. It was and is certainly true that the election of a black president is an extraordinary occurrence in a country still largely dominated by white – and masculine – authority. What was less reported at the time, however, was the immediate and racist backlash occurring in the form of hate crimes. Within the first two weeks after the election, the Southern Poverty Center documented hundreds of racist outbreaks, ranging from personal violence to hate graffiti. There were as well more threats made against Obama’s life than have ever been made against any presidential candidate (Wingfield, Feagin 187). The entire situation was, in a word, unprecedented, and it is hardly surprising that racism arose in response to it. At the same time, it also appears that the media downplayed these reactions, choosing instead to exalt the perceived triumph over racism.
The same odd form of denial, or willingness to minimize the reality, is also apparent in regard to hate crime rates since Obama first took office. For example, recent FBI reports indicate a reduction in hate crimes, particularly in regard to those racially motivated. To many, this is an encouraging sign that Obama’s twin elections indicate racial stability, or at least a true lessening of racism in the nation. Unfortunately, and as is being increasingly noted, FBI data is not necessarily reliable. Since the early 1990s, the Federal government has mandated that each state report its hate crimes. Just how this occurs, however, is essentially unregulated. States simply do not report hate crimes if they choose not to, a fact illustrated by there being no Uniform Crime Reporting programs in Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio, or Mississippi (Krasavage, Bronstein). The state of Mississippi, in fact, stands as a model of how flawed the information is. In 2005, 2006, and 2007, not one hate crime was reported from Mississippi, while states like California identified thousands (Krasavage, Bronstein). In 2011, Mississippi, a state with a notoriously troubled past in regard to racism, still presented the lowest evidence of hate crimes in the nation, and it is now accepted that negligent reporting, rather than reality, is responsible for the unlikely statistics (Rogers, Fuchs). Consequently, the encouraging news from the FBI, pointing to a reduction of nearly 30 percent in racial hate crimes, cannot be trusted.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of racism in the Obama years goes to the suppressed form it has taken. Certainly, Republican “Tea Party” members have been more overt in attacking Obama in terms that employ racism obliquely; that is to say, they trust that accusations of his perceived incompetence will be taken by their audience to validate racist beliefs in black incompetence generally. There was, for example, the disturbing and widespread usage of the phrase, “magic Negro,” as applied to Obama’s victory and as promulgated by Republican party operatives. The official stance of the party was that this was “good-natured” and inconsequential humor; that, in fact, it reflected the new ease with which white Americans could laugh at their own racism (Wingfield, Feagin 186). Even this, however, is something of a “new” kind of racism, and one that relies on powerful ideologies deeply embedded in the national consciousness. Moreover, it may appear from sources believed to be more enlightened. When Hilary Clinton opposed Obama in the 2008 presidential primary, she candidly asserted that Obama did not have the support of hard-working, white Americans. It seems that Senator Clinton was merely targeting a demographic already identified, as a poll of that year indicated that over 30 percent of white Americans admitted to being in some way racially prejudiced (Brooks 41). Here may be seen the true nature of racism today, as well as an explanation in rising rates of racial hate crimes. What has happened is that Obama’s position and authority have caused racism to go “behind the scenes.” Sociological studies, in fact, are uncovering more and more of this internal or “closeted” racial bias. In public arenas, white Americans today will overtly support full racial equality but, when with their peers and away from diverse environments, they more typically express extreme bigotry (Brooks 41).
To deny in any way Obama’s achievement in winning the presidency twice is to do a grave injustice to progress clearly made. In plain terms, a black president would have been unthinkable only decades ago. At the same time, it is equally irresponsible to believe that Obama’s administrations serve as proof that racism in America has been conquered. The evidence suggests, in fact, that it is as alive as ever, and merely taking different forms. Racial hate crimes continue, even as the actual numbers of them are questionable. Studies reveal that white racism is not diminished, but rather transferred to safer environments. Beyond anything else, it seems clear that the “post-racial” America of some current ideologies is a myth, just as even the idea of post-racism is a construction of white authority. The reality of racism, if altered, remains. The twin elections of President Obama do not translate to racism in the U.S. as being a thing of the past, but one that it is instead more covert, and consequently more potentially explosive.
Brooks, R. L. Racial Justice in the Age of Obama. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. Print.
Krasavage, N., & Bronstein, S. “Are Victims Falling through America’s Hate Crime Data Gap?” CNN, 2013. Web. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/15/justice/hate-crime-statistics/ >
Rogers, A., & Fuchs, E. “Experts Explain Why The FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics Are Pretty Useless.” Business Insider, 2012. Web.
Wingfield, A. H., & Feagin, J. R. Yes We Can?: White Racial Framing and the Obama Presidency. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.