"I'm Not a Racist, but...": The Rise of Casual Racism in the Age of Obama

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tags: racism, Obama

Christopher Rounds is Associate Professor of History at Allen University.

On a crisp January morning in 2009 Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America, the first person of color to serve as the chief executive in a nation whose history was fraught with racial tension. On the morning of the inauguration, before the President-Elect ascended to the dais before a record crowd, the questions began, questions that have been considered on a consistent basis since. Network television commentators asked whether America was now post-racial, perhaps even, post-racism. It was a tempting question, given that the theme of the inauguration, borrowing from the words of Abraham Lincoln, was "A New Birth of Freedom." While African American notables from Congressman John Lewis to preeminent scholar Michael Eric Dyson celebrated Obama's election, they were also quick to dismiss the latter notion, declaring that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow were far from banished. Thus, a national discourse had begun that has not ceased; with an increasing array of Americans, distinguished or not, weighing in via political speeches, televised interviews and opinion pieces, print editorials, innumerable blogs of varying prestige, classroom and workplace discussions, and social media posts that range from orchestrated to off-the-cuff. The resulting wholesale impression is that Americans believe that institutional racism is over. The election of President Obama, they claimed, was proof that the de facto and de jure legal discrimination that kept so many African-Americans and other racial minorities from classrooms, courtrooms, and Congressional halls had been eradicated.

That attitude reached its political culmination in June of 2013 when the Supreme Court overturned key elements of the Voting Rights Act. That legislation, signed into law in 1965, outlawed the literacy exams, poll taxes, and other unfair measures that were being utilized to keep African-Americans from exercising their right to vote, especially in the southern states. Just shy of a half-century later, the court struck down the provision of the act that required states with a history of voter discrimination to receive approval from the Justice Department before they altered voting regulations. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that " Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were." In short, Justice Roberts concluded that "our country has changed," and the laws had "no logical relationship to the present day." In a telling concurring statement Justice Samuel Alito referred to the act as having allowed a decades-long "perpetuation of racial entitlement." As a result of the court's decision the legislature in several states, throughout the country, introduced new or more restrictive voter identification laws. But allowing for the contention that the country has changed, as justices Roberts and Alito imagine it has, and that institutional forms of racism like voter discrimination have been eradicated, has a new form of racism emerged in its wake?

Since President Obama's election America has experienced a rise in "casual racism," a form of racial prejudice that does not reside in legislative statues, but is characterized by the persistence of certain passive-aggressive attitudes and beliefs. Speaking after the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in 2013, the President alluded to the reality of racial discrimination in contemporary America:

There are probably very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars...There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.

This form of racism may not be legally coded as was the institutionalized racism of the past, nor powered by its tragic counterpart of violence and intimidation, but it is equally real, and no less a threat towards a truly integrated, interracial democracy. This sentiment is echoed by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writing in the New York Times, referred to these perpetrators as "The Good, Racist People." He wrote :

In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist...the idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.

This form of racism certainly did not originate with Obama's election; in a sense it is as old as America's experience with race itself, but in the last half decade it seems more prevalent than ever before, and when it does emerge- be it in politics or popular culture- it is being excused, accepted, and even celebrated.

The title of this article is taken from the rejoinder, oft cited by the worst offenders, when accused of peddling in racism and racial stereotype. They are not racist, they claim, followed by a remark about their close and numerous African-American friends, business partners, or colleagues, as if familiarity or friendship inoculates one from bigotry. They are not racist, they again claim, rather making objective observations on the state of American society, most notably the policies of the Obama administration. It's the denial that took form at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference during a break-out session called, "Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist When You Know You're Not One?" While a 2010 survey conducted by the Blair-Rockefeller Poll at the University of Arkansas found that only 1.3% of white respondents viewed blacks as unintelligent, and 4.4% viewed them as untrustworthy, the results nonetheless displayed a possible Political Correctness fatigu among the 56% of whites who felt that "too much attention is being paid to race and racial issues."

It is a valid observation that the partisanship of contemporary politics, and the 24-hour news cycle, perhaps makes it impossible for one's public statements to escape scrutiny; their words are regimentally dissected to evaluate inherent racial, sexual, or class bias. In the age before cellular technology it is very possible that many of the racial controversies that have emerged in recent years would have gone unrecorded. In that time Mitt Romney's comments to a cadre of wealthy fundraisers would have stayed behind closed doors, and Donald Sterling's ridiculously outdated racial prejudices and fears within the walls of his private residence. And in the years before the advent of the non-stop entertainment news industry, Sarah Palin's main street Wasilla schtick would have long exhausted its usefulness. And it seems implausible that we would have learned a quarter-century ago that a celebrity-chef used the "n-word" in a moment of anger. Yet as figures like Sterling claim that "I am not a racist, and have never been a racist," the evidence mounts at a stunning rate, and it is increasingly difficult to deny or dismiss the prejudice in his words and in the attitudes of Romney, Palin, Paula Deen, among others.

Nobody has been as prime a target of this racism as the President. As the 2008 election season ramped up, Senator Obama was accused of being a foreigner, an Arab, a Muslim, and a socialist/communist conspirator. While those claims could be dismissed as the ramblings of those out on the extreme political fringe, Governor Palin commented that Obama was "shucking and jiving" towards the White House, a term with its origin in slavery and tied to the perception of African-Americans as untruthful pranksters who shirk responsibility. Once Obama took office such language became endemic. Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party's self-appointed idea guru, displayed a stunning repertoire of racial stereotyping when he referred to the President's "different rhythm," characterized by his excessive vacation days, overall idleness, and preference for a game of basketball over affairs of state. Such claims did not dissipate through Obama's first administration as conservative stalwart John Sununu, acting as the co-chair of Romney's presidential campaign, made clear when he characterized Obama's debate style as "lazy," and claimed that the incumbent sacrifices the dignity of the presidency in an attempt to appear cool. And when both conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and Congressman Lynn Westmorland of Georgia accused the Obamas of being "uppity," they defended the term as a synonym for "snobby," aware or not that the term was long used by racist, white southerners in reference to blacks who did not know their place.

Taken as a whole, the composite image of President Obama within our supposedly tolerant and increasingly multi-cultural, post-racial society, was that of a lazy immigrant, an irresponsible trickster, looking down on the Americans he fooled into voting for him with his contemptible style. If, as the Blair-Rockefeller Poll speculated, "Obama's election raised expectations that America was entering a new era in which racial animus and barriers to equality no longer existed," the results of the poll and prevailing attitudes nationwide made it clear that "different racial perspectives have yet to converge."

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