By Byard Duncan
In a now-famous speech delivered to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Illinois Senator Barack Obama affirmed that “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” His words illuminated a new political paradigm — one aimed at stoking the fires of “change” while simultaneously extinguishing those of ancient prejudice — and it wasn’t long before journalists, pundits and politicians began to buzz about the merits of his nascent “post-racial” ideology.
White liberals in particular — perhaps perceiving Obama’s message as an opportunity to clear away lingering residue from their moral slates — had good cause to be excited about post-racialism. The process, after all, seemed perfect — even utopian: negate racism by negating the concept of race itself. Its beauty lay in its simplicity. It was attractive, self gratifying and even seemingly attainable: a philosophy destined to succeed.
So why is it failing?
The short answer is that most attempts to move to the “post” actuallyserved as reminders of how mired we still are in the past and present. Andrew Austin, a professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin, points to “Atlantic” columnist Marc Ambinder who, having observed that white liberals were impressed by Obama’s post-racial worldview, went on to claim these very same people were “obsessed with expiating the collective sins of [their] country.” “We are transfixed with race,” Ambinder adds in his piece. “Obsessed by it.”
Jim Axelrod, Obama’s chief advisor, hinted at a similar theme when he said “[Obama] believes you can have the support of the black community, appealing to the pride they feel in his candidacy, and still win support among whites.” Axelrod’s words, according to author Jeff Chang, were evidence “that the campaign still views…African Americans more as emergent — useful for votes and campaign donations—than insurgent — needing to be considered carefully in agenda discussions.”
Unsurprisingly, post-racialism proved a much trickier subject than initially anticipated. By attempting to regard Obama as both a personification of cultural homogenization and a vessel for whimsical apologias, white America had created a troublesome double standard for itself — somehow commoditizing the very issue it was trying so desperately to escape. Indeed, by attempting to dodge the question of race, they had actually zeroed in on it.
And the results were not pretty. In fact, they manifested in a series of contradictory and destructive messages. Obama Girl, the YouTube diva du jour, captivated millions (7,474,087 at last count) with her politically adorned hot pants and otherwise “liberal” dress code; but she also promoted tones of female subordination and false black hypersexualization. Her lascivious innuendoes (“In the new Oval Office/You’ll get your head of state”), though delivered in jest, were eerily reminiscent of 2006’s smear campaign against Tennessee Representative Harold Ford (In these, a white woman who claimed to have met Ford “at the Playboy Party” invited the black politician to “call me” with a coy wink). The exacting race-baiting scrutiny to which the Ford ads were subjected was not applied to Obama Girl. Rather, her “crush” on Obama seemed to make any ugly undertones simply disappear.
Similarly, T-shirt companies have, in an attempt to actually aid the Obama campaign, recently started to produce designs branded with racially loaded catchphrases. Zazzle.com features a “Once you go Barack, you’ll never go back,” shirt, and Nostarclothing.com offers a slew of “Obama is my homeboy” models. Misguided attempts to promote an ideal of post-racialism, these products actually exploit the stereotypes they are marketed to supposedly overcome. In short, they remind us just how hesitant we are to move past racial constructions and labels.
Most recently, Fox News ignited debate when it ran footage of Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright Jr. preaching supposedly “anti-American” messages to his followers. Finally pressured to address the issue of racism in America, Obama delivered a passionate address on March 18 in which he affirmed that conflicting racial ideals are all part of one unified, American whole. Whether or not this was a move further into the comfortable throes of empty, post-racial rhetoric or a sincere attempt to actually address the issue remains to be determined. But one thing is certain: if we as a nation are to actually become “more than the sum of [our] parts,” we need to begin searching for a way to acknowledge that these parts actually exist.
If we can, as Obama would like to believe, “move beyond some of our old racial wounds,” we’ll first have to find a way to stop sprinkling salt in them.
Byard Duncan is a junior politics and journalism major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.