Race and Racism in the Time of Obama

From the beginning of his service, Barack Obama has been successfully marginalized as "the other," with a substantial part of the electorate (and the United States Congress) questioning not only his politics or policies, but also his very legitimacy.
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In 2008, America elected a black president. It seemed so heady -- such a landmark moment in racial justice. It has not turned out so well. From the beginning of his service, Barack Obama has been successfully marginalized as "the other," with a substantial part of the electorate (and the United States Congress) questioning not only his politics or policies, but also his very legitimacy.

Depending on the poll, between 43% and 59% of Republicans believe Obama is Muslim, despite not a speck of evidence. A similar segment of Republican voters remain convinced that Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore unqualified to serve.

The palpable disdain with which Republicans refer to Obama is symptomatic of something far beyond partisan politics. Marco Rubio, for example, aggressively charges that Obama is trying to destroy America. It is not plausible that all of this coded language is just business as usual. Many white Americans deeply resent a man of color leading the country and will do nearly anything to delegitimize his tenure in office. The anger with which the GOP rose to demand that he surrender his Constitutional authority to nominate a replacement for Antonin Scalia is only the latest symptom of race-based antipathy.

As an observer of and occasional participant in civil rights activism and deep diversity work, I am sad to acknowledge that the Obama era has seen a steady retreat from issues of racial equality. The Obama presidency is relentlessly cited by racism deniers as evidence that racism is a thing of the past. To the contrary, and quite ironically, his presidency has offered pungent evidence that the rot of racism is broad and deep.

I spend far too much time in the hours before dawn reading and responding to editorial pieces in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Washington Post and others. Even in these supposedly liberal publications, the overwhelming sentiments of readers -- at least those who comment -- indicate impatience with claims of racism and opposition to affirmative action, much less consideration of reparations. Most voices, whether liberal or conservative, think Black Lives Matter is too strident a movement. Most believe that students of color on America's campuses are too sensitive, coddled by a politically correct climate and too eager to avoid any emotional discomfort.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed on this topic, several Yale professors wrote:

Instead of promoting the idea of college as a transition from the shelter of the family to adult autonomy and responsibility, universities like Yale have given in to the implicit notion that they should provide the equivalent of the home environment.

The students who ask for safe spaces or who seek refuge from the daily climate of micro (and macro)-aggression, are often students for whom the "shelter of the family" wasn't so very helpful. Institutionalized racism has decimated too many families of color, making homes and neighborhoods anything but the "safe haven" that the authors feel a university need not replicate. Such students have been ostracized, marginalized and humiliated, not cossetted in a warm, supportive middle class family.

The rise of so-called "political correctness" is not the infantilizing of students. It is the long overdue voice given to the real experiences of all students. For many, many decades, students of color (and gay students, women students and others) were marginalized and silenced, as the white male majority (of which I am a lifetime charter member) set the academic standards, controlled social norms, and dominated administrations and boards of trustees.

The majority of white Americans vehemently reject the idea of white privilege. To this majority the very idea of "white privilege" is disproven by Obama's election and the anecdotal success stories of black Americans in business, sports and entertainment. Most white folks judge injustice only in personal terms. "I'm white and my family never got anything. I'm not responsible for slavery. I'm not a racist."

I'm white and I'm privileged. My grandfathers both crafted lives as immigrants in Chicago that were unavailable to black folks. My father and mother gained from educations and communities that were unavailable to black folks. My family owned homes and accumulated (quite limited!) capital that was not available to black people. I have never been considered "less than" as a result of my skin color. No person has ever made assumptions about my intelligence or ability based on my skin color. I grew up in a community where I learned the subtle, coded language of privilege, which opened many doors that were closed to others. We won't have full racial progress until all white people acknowledge this systemic privilege, regardless of their comparative affluence or success.

Perhaps Barack Obama's greatest gift to the country has been the grace, dignity and courage with which he has endured explicit and implicit bigotry and racism. If only we could accept his gift with similar grace and dignity and a renewed commitment to make this kind of courage unnecessary.

This column appeared in the Valley News.

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