Obama's Job and Ours

By Andra Gillespie
Saturday, January 17, 2009

Despite the optimism that Barack Obama's election brings, I have been troubled by the simplicity with which some view this dramatic event. It has been suggested, by some students at my university, by well-meaning adults, even by Stephen Colbert, that Obama's election spells the end of American racial and ethnic inequality.

Yet while his presidency will bring a significant step toward racial equality, it is naive to think that one election erases centuries of prejudice. Indeed, while overt racism may be nearly a thing of the past, some ingrained habits and features of our old racial regime are likely to be with us for years to come.

We Americans like getting things fast. From fast food to speed dating, we expect to have our needs met how we want, when we want. And while it would be wonderful to dispense with decades of awful history in one vote, a prejudice-free society takes years -- and struggle -- to cultivate.

I study race in my work as a political scientist, and I have come to fear that the symbolism of the Obama presidency lulls us into thinking that we no longer have to be on our guard against prejudice or inequality. Consider an exchange I had last summer, when I stopped at an antiques shop in Christiansburg, Va. The shop carried a few pieces of memorabilia that were troubling to me as a black woman, such as lawn jockeys and racist children's books, and I questioned the man running the store about them.

The dealer became defensive and attempted to deflect the criticism in my questions by responding that he was an Obama supporter and that his neighbors were black professionals. At that moment, I wondered whether "I voted for Obama" would eventually replace "Some of my best friends are black" as the standard, tired rationalization of anyone caught in a racist moment.

Yes, America has made tremendous racial progress in the past generation and a half. Very few people thought that a mere 43 years after blacks were fully enfranchised, a black man would become president of the United States. But the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is long and deep; there is still much room for improvement.

Last fall, an Associated Press-Yahoo News poll conducted by Stanford University found that 40 percent of white Americans harbored some form of prejudice against blacks, such as believing that black people were lazy, violent or given to complaining. And these attitudes do not account for the disparities in health, education, income and wealth between blacks and whites that have been a constant feature of our society.

As president, Obama will no doubt be encouraged to do everything possible to eliminate the structural barriers that perpetuate inequality among racial groups. It is a goal everyone should support. But even he will not have the power to eradicate prejudice. That is our job. We move closer to the community that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of every time we embark upon those difficult conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances about race and inequality. And it is important that our country not use this election as a shortcut or a pass to keep from discussing race.

Just after Election Day, I sent an e-mail to friends and acquaintances around the country soliciting recollections about the tone of their post-election conversations. I also participated in a few public forums immediately after the election in which people spontaneously shared similar stories. Many of my acquaintances encountered people of all races, colors and creeds who were truly excited about the election's outcome. But a significant minority confronted racial resentment. Several blacks recounted that some normally friendly white acquaintances and co-workers actually refused to speak to them on Nov. 5. I heard stories about more overt racism, vandalism and threats.

This was America in 2008.

Those unfortunate experiences highlight the fact that when it comes to race, many people, myself included, either preach to the choir or retreat to a tense silence when facing people with whom we disagree. Neither of these stances is really productive for racial reconciliation. We cannot move past race if we refuse to talk about it or if we discuss the subject only in our own, ethnically or ideologically homogenous social networks. And, unfortunately, we cannot move past race simply by electing diverse people to office.

When I saw the racist memorabilia in that antiques shop, I could have left the store in tears or berated the shopkeeper with gusto. Instead, I engaged him in a discussion about racial imagery. I hope that we both learned something from the conversation. He had not known much about the role of certain racial tropes in American literary history, and I did not know much about the racial history of that region.

When I left the store, I appreciated that while we may not have agreed on everything, we could at least respect each other's perspectives.

These kinds of discussions must occur regularly if we are to have a just, equal society. When Obama burst onto the national stage in 2004 with a speech at the Democratic National Convention, he said that we are our brother's keepers and that government could not do everything for us. Our attitude toward racial reconciliation should reflect that sentiment. Obama must lead the charge toward eradicating systemic racism, but it is our job to stamp out prejudice one conversation at a time.

Andra Gillespie is an assistant professor of political science at Emory University whose research examines political mobilization, race and competition between minority groups.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company