In the afterglow of Barack Obama’s election the temptation to make hasty generalizations regarding the present and the future of race in the U.S. has proven irresistible. The film director Michael Moore, for example, found the election signaled the utter transformation of a nation “founded in genocide and built on the backs of slaves.” The Obama vote showed to Moore and to many that the “flame of hate,” already now reduced to a minority position, was sure to “fizzle in our lifetime.”
However much they smarted from Republican defeats, conservatives likewise celebrated that Obama’s victory put paid the charges that the U.S. was a racially discriminatory society. Indeed from Obama’s first primary successes the Wall Street Journal editorially heralded his victories as a triumph for the nation, even while opposing his election. From the left or the right, such triumphalism postpones asking good questions about just what changed, and what did not.
Indeed in stark contrast to pleasant narratives of progress, white family wealth in the U.S. is nine times that of African American family wealth and black young men are seven times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. The diseases of the poor in the U.S. are the diseases of poor people of color. 75 percent of all active tuberculosis cases afflict them. In Obama’s home state of Illinois, a majority of HIV-AIDS cases occur among African Americans. Three in ten black and Latino children live in poverty, triple the white child poverty rate.
To think more precisely about the coexistence in the U.S. of such stark and deadly racial inequalities with the historic triumph of an African American presidential candidate requires that we recognize that racism is more than one thing and that we specify what has changed. The view that Obama heralds the end of race-thinking in the U.S. rests on a particular definition of racism, one that currently very much holds sway in U.S. politics and popular culture. Racism turns, on this view, on bad but disappearing individual attitudes, of the sort that can be measured by whether many or few voters act on those attitudes on election day, or even by the ratings among whites of Oprah Winfrey’s television shows or the sales of products Tiger Woods endorses. Deep structural inequalities may be considered unfortunate, but race is personal.