The Observer Debate
A year on, has Barack Obama met the hopes of the world?
Last November, in Chicago’s Grant Park, world politics was transformed by the arrival of America’s first black president. But has he made good on his groundbreaking promises?
Patricia Williams: On race
The volume of abuse has not shaken him
The honeymoon has ended. While Barack Obama’s overall popularity remains relatively high, the right wing of our nation has become well-organised and noisy, voicing grievances in bitter terms that leave little doubt that the United States is not yet the haven of “post-racial” harmony for which most of us yearn.
For much of recent history, American racism has been expressed in terms that stereotyped black people variously as criminal, buffoonish, bestial, or less intelligent. This typecasting remains a powerful legacy; and the divide it still imposes is evident in the vastly disproportionate rates of incarceration, residential segregation, employment, and educational opportunity.
In addition to the general enormity of the problem, however, tackling racism poses a serious Catch-22 for the president. Even for many who voted for him, Obama has been boxed in by an historically less-visible sort of racial stereotype: that of “the good one” — the exceptional person of colour who proves the rule, the well-scrubbed model minority, the socially acceptable brown face, the black person white people love to love because loving him proves that there is no hatred in our hearts. This particular configuration is heavily dependant upon the anointed black person remaining “above” race at all costs: talking about race as little as possible, remaining apart from the masses, staying silent as the lonely figurehead of that conferred exceptionalism.
But even if he wanted to, the president of the United States cannot remain apart from racialised frays – they are too much part of our domestic life. And so whenever Obama attempts to address real racial disparity, he risks being perceived as having broken the covenant of the “post-race” ideal. Perhaps predictably, the backlash to his not being that imaginary icon of race-less-ness has been significant and constraining. If, for example, one listens to Fox News-– which in the US has millions more viewers that CNN – virtually anything Obama does is depicted as “playing the race card” or “reverse racism” or “racial favouritism.” Not only is he a “racist” by this measure, he is constantly – and I do mean constantly – compared to Hitler, to Stalin and to Osama Bin Laden.
It’s a truly perplexing development: fear of “the black man” has been seamlessly flipped from nightmares about the rebellious dispossessed thug, to those of the too-powerful, much-too-smart-for-his-own-good, oppressively dispossessing autocrat. Indeed, in the alternative universe of Fox News, President Obama is the new face of racism itself, a man who supposedly hates white people and is out to take away their guns, indoctrinate their children, and kill old people.
It’s hard to have a sensible conversation about anything in a climate polarised in this manner. It is one reason that rational discussion of health care has become so unfortunately side-tracked by ridiculous non-issues and imaginary fears. At the same time, President Obama has remained steadfastly engaged with the jobs at hand. If his address of racial disparity has, out of indubitable political necessity, remained oblique, his grace in dealing with all constituencies, no matter how hostile, has been salutary and exemplary. His message has remained consistent and reasonable through all the surrounding nonsense. As he first posited in The Audacity of Hope, tackling structural racism is something that all Americans will be better for. The goal of this collective enterprise must be to enable all Americans to feel safe not only within our various racial groupings or ethnic enclaves, but also and equally comfortable in the uniquely multi-faceted human community that is the United States of America.
Patricia Williams is a professor of law at Columbia University