Thomas J. Sugrue: The Myth of Post-Racial America

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Thomas J. Sugrue is professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is "Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race."]

The euphoria surrounding Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president seems a lifetime ago. In the days following the election, Gallup reported that more than two-thirds of Americans viewed Obama’s election as “either the most important advance for blacks in the past 100 years, or among the two or three most important such advances.” Obama embodied the rise of a “post-racial” America, a “post civil rights era,” whose very success was proof positive that we had finally overcome.

Obama himself reinforced this view, mostly through silence. On the campaign trail he avoided racial issues unless he was forced to confront them, as in the controversy sparked by his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr. And in the White House, he has assiduously avoided talk about race -- the noteworthy exception being a handful of speeches before predominantly African American audiences.

His calculation is strategic. The political costs are too high. In a peculiar inversion of America’s racial history, it has become a form of racism (“playing the race card”) to suggest that protesters wielding placards depicting Obama as an African witch doctor are racist or that Tea Partiers’ belief that Obama’s policies favor blacks and disadvantage whites are rooted in race. In a topsy-turvy political world, Obama’s mere mention of race in the 2009 brouhaha following the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. led apoplectic commentators, like Fox host Glenn Beck, to accuse the president of being “racist,” a person “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

But the president’s studied silence on race -- and many white Americans’ insistence on their colorblindness -- leave America’s real racial problems mostly unaddressed. Racial injustice today takes a form far more dangerous than the vile prejudices that sometimes appear on placards and racist blogs. It isn’t gross caricatures of Obama as a simian that give the lie to the notion that America has entered a post-racial age. Instead, it’s the deep and persistent gap between blacks and whites by nearly every socioeconomic measure....

In 2006, more than half of subprime loans went to African Americans, who comprise only 13 percent of the population. And a recent study of data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act found that 32.1 percent of blacks, but only 10.5 percent of whites, got higher-priced mortgages -- namely those with an annual percentage rate three or more points higher than the rate of a Treasury security of the same length. The result has been growing economic insecurity among African Americans, even those of middle-class status.

Have we overcome? The historic presidency of Barack Obama offers one answer. But the boarded up, foreclosed houses in minority neighborhoods and the staggering rates of urban unemployment offer another. “The arc of the moral universe,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. “bends towards justice.”

But that arc just as often veers off course. To veer it back on course means recognizing what has changed in the Obama era, but just as importantly, what has not.

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