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Obama Presidency Lures Out Dormant Racism

The end of a racist nation cannot just come from an integration of races in schools, the workplace and politics. It must come from a very personal change in perception. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed the law, but it's the people that change a culture.
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The civil rights movement was not a movement of the black community. It was a movement of humanity, for humanity. Calling African Americans a "black community" serves an injustice to the countless individuals with unique stories. It is these generalizations that may lie at the root of America's inability to cease racism.

People have stories. Communities have more than one. And Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, has a story that's important to know.

In 1957, 15-year-old Roberts was one of the first black students to attend the racially segregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Under orders from former state Gov. Orval Faubus, the Arkansas National Guard prevented the Little Rock Nine from entering the school, ignoring the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Mobs protested outside Little Rock, threatening to lynch the nine students if they entered. It wasn't until President Eisenhower called on reinforcements and federalized the Arkansas National Guard -- taking it out of the governor's control -- that the students were finally admitted. But while Eisenhower may have appeared to support racial integration, he was hesitant to get involved.

"When you look at what actually happened, Eisenhower was not all that eager to get involved," Roberts said in a phone interview. "He had to be pushed and persuaded to finally send troops. So we were glad he listened to reason, certainly. But it was no big deal. We didn't see him as someone riding in on a white horse to save us."

Racial tensions in 1957 and racial tensions in modern-day America are the product of centuries of inequality. It was only 47 years ago that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Previously, there was a time period of 335 years (from 1619 to 1954) during which it was legal to discriminate.

"For the greater part of that 335-year period, white males were preferred. They were part of what I call a 'giant affirmative action program,' and by law they were the only ones who could go school, own property, run for office, or prepare for professions," Roberts said. This vast period of time formed America's philosophies, politics and systems that carries into American society today, Roberts said.

The Trayvon Martin shooting stirred up racial tensions that had long existed, but were often ignored. Although young black men are frequently victims of police brutality, most cases don't get the same national attention as the Martin case.

"We have a tremendous issue of racism in this country, but no one wants to face it," Roberts said. "Most of our elected officials are afraid of it. And people find it hard to have conversations with people in their neighborhood, simply because it seems to be frightening."

In 2011, Miami police killed seven black men in an eight-month time period. A month after the Martin shooting, 19-year-old Kendrec McDade, an unarmed African-American college student, was shot dead by police in Pasadena, Calif. In 2009, 19-year-old Alexander Landau was brutally beaten and mutilated by Denver city police who pulled him over for an illegal left turn. Now Landau, whose face is still scarred, raps about the injustice he faced that January night.

"I want to believe that we're destined for a change," he says in this YouTube video.

But even in a country with an African-American president, these problems are not frequently addressed. Instead, Congress debates issues such as contraception coverage for months, while black men are dying and receiving unfair prison sentences at the hands of racist individuals.

"I think Barack Obama can't really do it," Roberts said. "Our Republicans have aligned themselves against him. He's been truly outspoken about it. Their goal is simply to defeat Obama and they are not really concerned about the real issues that we face."

While Obama's election did not escalate racism, it brought it into the spotlight, making it acceptable for people to publicly criticize the black president, often with racial undertones. Last year, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said being associated with President Obama would be like touching a "tar baby." The president has also been accused of being Kenyan -- not American -- by birthers. And Tea Party member Marilyn Davenport sent out an image of Obama with chimpanzee parents. The caption? "Now you know why no birth certificate." So although the U.S. has its first black president, the country still has a long way to go. Racism still lies present in the mindsets of many Americans, and Obama's presidency is bringing these issues into the spotlight.

Racial inequality also lies present in America's justice system. A compilation of 40 studies from 1980 to 2005 shows that in 68.2 percent of federal criminal cases and 43.2 percent of state cases, black men received harsher sentences for crimes than white men.

And racist mentalities even linger in prisons themselves. Prisoners tend to form associations on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. Prisons may be representative of a microcosm of the racial problems that lie dormant in American society.

"Ninety to 95 percent of all U.S. citizens choose to live monoracial and monocultural lives," Roberts said. "That's just a face of who we are, and that's part of what I'm talking about in terms of our willingness to face that reality."

Prisons may be a spectacle into the nature of this mentality whose existence is so often denied: a place where African Americans are locked up with harsher sentences than any other race, and a place that beyond anything proves the existence of racism.

When people view the black community as a whole, they stop themselves from getting to know the individuals and they separate themselves from this community. The end of a racist nation cannot just come from an integration of races in schools, the workplace and politics. It must come from a very personal change in perception. And to do that, one cannot simply deny the existence of a problem. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed the law. But it's the people that change a culture.

In her book, Talking with Strangers, Danielle Allen talks about the difference between oneness and wholeness. Rather than striving for an impossible "oneness" that relates to a society's desire for an impossible homogeneity (causing people to segregate themselves in search for this uniformity), we should instead search for "wholeness" -- a metaphor representing the acceptance of diversity, while harmoniously collaborating as a society.

"My goal for all of us is to see each other as peers in a universe where nobody is looked up to, nobody is looked down on, but everyone is eyeball to eyeball," Roberts said.

And in such an America, Trayvon Martin may not have seemed "suspicious" -- and he, along with countless other victims of race-based police brutality, may have still been alive today.