Obama and Race in America

John McWharter and Glenn Loury discuss the implications of Barrack Obama’s election to the White House on the issue of racism in America. John McWharter says, “Things are not as bad as we have often been told.”  Is that true?  I think it is.

The facts remain that there are barriers for African Americans in the US.  (The same can be said for women.)  But, both McWharter and Loury feel that the cause of these is more “institutional” than endemic of individual racism in the population.

A majority of white people in this country voted for a black man over a white man.  That says something.  It exemplifies that they trust the highest office, not only in this country, but in the world, to a person who doesn’t share their race.  It says they don’t take race as a central issue.

Certainly for the majority of my generation, race and sex are just not things that we take seriously as criteria for anything.  We grew up in a world where women and black people were in positions of power all over the place.  Sure, they hadn’t yet been president, but they’d been in virtually every other place, including secretaries of state, cabinet members, governors, mayors.

More than half of my bosses have been women.  Two of them were black women.  I grew up in a world where Nelson Mandela not only was released from prison, but was elected president in one of the most institutionally racist countries on earth.

And, while this might seem trivial to some (it isn’t for males of my generation), men like Eddie Murphy and Snoop and Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan had life-long emotional (and I imagine neurological) impacts on the way young white boys like me think about black men.  We all wanted to be Eddie Murphy.  He wasn’t some novelty black guy, he was an idol.  He was (and his stand up confirms this) one of the funniest people alive.  He was a huge movie star on par with anyone in Hollywood and continues to be.  He didn’t shape foreign policy or design economic regulations, but he shaped minds without ever intending to.

But, that said, Obama’s presidency raises other important questions about race in this country.  If white people (at least the majority who voted, and certainly the up and coming generations) are willing to entrust the country to a black guy, then what is up with the clearly race correlated problems that are rampant here in America?

For Loury, it is an institutional problem.  I’m inclined to agree.  I doubt that every cop who arrests, on average, more black people than white people is an outright racist.  But, I don’t doubt that the system that cop is working in, the conditions the black people are living in, and the judicial system through-which the arrested person must go are all set up (even if unintentionally) to favor the incarceration of huge numbers of black men vs. white men.  It’s akin to the law of unintended consequences.  We pass all these laws and regulations in an attempt to make the world a better place and end up in a police state that oppresses minority and poor people.

(As a side note, I’m all for the abolition of drug laws.  Most prisoners in this country are in for non-violent drug related crimes.  If the drugs weren’t illegal, these people would be free-and we wouldn’t be supporting them via taxes in jail, allowing us to either redirect the funds, or lower taxes.  Given that the majority of the “criminals” are black men, we would immediately see a reduction in the incarceration rate of black men.  But, this is a topic for Libertarian solutions to Liberal concerns.)

If it is true that a higher number of black people live in poverty than the number of black people who live at or above a middle class income levels, then they will see a higher percentage of people suffering from poverty related problems.  These include incarceration rates, but they also include a lack of adequate health care, failing schools which limit college options, lack of job opportunities, and the “institutional” effect of living in an environment that tells you that you are not a part of the “system”.  The important point is that these problems are correlated with race, but are not caused by it alone.  There are White, Latino, Native, and Asian people who are in the same boat.  The connection is poverty.  More than any other factor, poverty tears apart the fabric of the American Dream.

Racism isn’t going to disappear anymore than xenophobia or hatred, violence, rape, murder, and the tendency to eat donuts when we know we shouldn’t. Sometimes we see examples of individual racism that is dramatic, violent, and frightening.  Readers of this blog know that my high school girlfriend was black, we lived on the outskirts of town, and we got our share of shit for being an interracial couple.  But, the system wide effects that damage the opportunities of millions are of a different nature.

If we tackle the big reasons why anybody at all in this country would be disadvantaged, then by default black people (and Latino people, and immigrants, and women, etc) will have more opportunity, and less institutional barriers to achieve their dreams.  It doesn’t solve all the problems, certainly, but it takes on one of the biggest.

As Dan Rather once said, “If you have to eat a plate of frogs, eat the biggest one first.”

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One response to “Obama and Race in America

  1. Pingback: Why the “War on Drugs” is Racist « Good Tithings

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