I am no longer shocked when there are reports of Barack Obama dummies with nooses about their necks, hanging in public effigy. Such old-fashioned racist fodder is cliché in the United States. Our past is always present.
In some quarters, Americans were hopeful that Mr. Obama’s election as President would signal an end to racism, racial inequality, and racial division. Of course, that position was naive at best, and willfully ignorant in truth. The gaps created by decades of bigoted policy, law and practices are too deep to be ameliorated by whoever sits in the Oval Office. Moreover, in the U.S. race is always deployed in election seasons. It is coded with words like “crime,” “welfare” and “special interests,” and signals a many-decades-long, ongoing backlash against the efforts to pursue equality during the civil rights movement. What makes this moment different is that now it is the President’s body itself that is the symbol of racial threat.
The truth is, Americans are quite ambivalent about the value we place in “equality.” Americans love the ideal, but many also fear it. They worry that if we pursue racial equality, it might negatively affect their standing in society. And so we find ourselves with hysterical clinging to the status quo through lynched President dolls, and fearmongering about the havoc of the ghetto and the teeming “illegals” reaching into suburbia’s pockets at the bidding of a “socialist” President.
The great irony is that policies set with the intention of addressing racial inequality and poverty are avoided by both Democrats and Republicans, even as the Democrat at the helm, Barack Obama, is a person of colour. The most loyal constituents of the Democratic Party, African Americans, have nearly double the unemployment rate of their white counterparts, one-twentieth of the wealth, a lower life expectancy and a vast overrepresentation in the criminal justice system for drug crimes, despite a lower rate of drug usage.
These are just snapshots of a society in which the accident of birth can operate as a winning or losing lottery ticket, again and again. African Americans know this. And yet the political mobilization to advocate for measures to address discriminatory practices has waned in the black community. This is the crux and crisis of the post civil rights condition. We have tacitly consented as the Democratic Party capitulates repeatedly to the forces that say that “you can’t win” with race-specific policies, or with measures that address poverty. In exchange, the party is racially inclusive from top to bottom, even as the society is not.
Additionally, the rise of neoliberalism, and its turn to marketizing everything from schools, to prisons, to social service agencies, leads to greater injury for groups considered “less valuable” or “less desirable.” There are incentives to imprison more people when prisons are private. When public education is privatized, market opportunity for education capitalists takes precedence over the state’s responsibility to children. Markets favour the favoured. It is a simple economic truth that has a powerful impact.
And at the same time, the stake people of colour have in society is diminishing. In the current landscape, black and brown people who are citizens often don’t have jobs, and too many lose rights due to felon disfranchisement. Undocumented immigrants have jobs but aren’t granted basic rights and are detained and deported with minimal process. This is de facto second-class membership all around. It is a realm of racial inequality that government officials refuse to talk about.
And now we are at the dawn of another election. The choice we face is stark despite the growing similarity between the two major parties on economic and foreign policy. The choice is about how robust our federalism will remain, whether civil liberties will be diminished or extended (in particular, gains for women and same-sex partners) and, at the core, whether we believe that the federal government has any role in the health and well-being of its citizenry. All of these issues bear some relationship to race, because it is a racially stratified country.
But when we talk about race and the election, we are rarely talking with any specificity about race in legislation and policy. Instead, we are talking about the remnants of a historically learned hostility that weighs us down at every turn. And so those of us who care about the problem of inequality find ourselves with a persistent heartache, wishing we could squeeze racism from the garment of our destiny, and finally hang it out to dry.
Imani Perry is a professor at the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University. She is the author of More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the U.S.