Nation

Obama, pro and con

Barack ObamaRacismSocial IssuesCrime, Law and JusticeElectionsShirley ChisholmColin Powell

A quantum leap in racial progress, but not the end

By any measure, this is a monumental day in our nation's history. African Americans are rightly proud. The brutal facts of black existence -- slavery, segregation and the stunting of social and political ambition -- have dashed the hopes of black progress time and again. The election of Barack Obama symbolizes the resurrection of hope and the restoration of belief in a country that has often failed to treat its black citizens as kin.

We should not be seduced by the notion that Obama's presidency signals the end of racism, the civil rights movement, the struggle for black equality or the careers of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. A President Obama would not have come to be without the groundbreaking efforts of Shirley Chisholm, and especially Jackson. Obama is able to be cool and calm because leaders like Sharpton, at least in the past, got angry.

Obama is the latest link in the chain of progress they all forged in the struggle to improve the U.S. by improving the condition of black folk. Obama will move in exactly the opposite direction: As president, he will improve the condition of black folk because he improves the nation. Obama is not a black president, but a president who's black.

-- Michael Eric Dyson

Whites were seduced by a vision of racial innocence

Obama's post-racial idealism told whites the one thing they most wanted to hear: America had essentially contained the evil of racism to the point at which it was no longer a serious barrier to black advancement. Thus, whites became enchanted enough with Obama to become his political base. It was Iowa -- 95% white -- that made him a contender. Blacks came his way only after he won enough white voters to be a plausible candidate.

It is true that white America has made great progress in curbing racism over the last 40 years. I believe, for example, that Colin Powell might well have been elected president in 1996 had he run against a then rather weak Bill Clinton. It is exactly because America has made such dramatic racial progress that whites today chafe so under the racist stigma. So I don't think whites really want change from Obama as much as they want documentation of change that has already occurred. They want him in the White House first of all as evidence, certification and recognition.

But there is an inherent contradiction in all this. When whites -- especially today's younger generation -- proudly support Obama for his post-racialism, they unwittingly embrace race as their primary motivation. They think and act racially, not post-racially. The point is that a post-racial society is a bargainer's ploy: It seduces whites with a vision of their racial innocence precisely to coerce them into acting out of a racial motivation.

-- Shelby Steele Excerpted from articles published in The Times on Nov. 5.

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