Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama

By Tim Wise
City Lights. 159 pp. Paperback, $13.95
March 29, 2008

Chapter One

Barack Obama, White Denial and the Reality of Racism

Once Barack Obama became the Democratic Party's nominee for president of the United States, two questions emerged most prominently in media and personal discussions of his candidacy. The first of these, most often put forward by those who were seeking to draw rather sweeping and positive conclusions from their query, was typically posed as, "What does it say about race in America that a black man now stands on the precipice of becoming, arguably, the most powerful person in the world?" The second, presented somewhat more skeptically than the first, and more likely offered up by those whose hopefulness was a bit more tempered by an appreciation of history, most often sounded like this: "Is white America really ready for a black president?"

While we can hardly be surprised at how quickly these became the principal questions asked in the run-up to the November 2008 election, both nonetheless stemmed from premises that were largely false, or at least glaringly problematic. And as with any question that emanates from a false or incomplete starting point, such interrogations as these ultimately led down mundane analytic corridors, to destinations that, although interesting, were never truly the places to which we needed to travel.

For while the political ascent of Barack Obama, culminating with his victory in November over challenger John McCain, certainly says something about race, what it says is far from that which most-including those typically asking the question in the first place-seem to believe. Yes, it suggests that blind and irrational bigotry of the kind that animated so much white opinion for so long in the United States may well have receded (though not as much as we'd like to think, a subject to which I'll return below). But given the evidence regarding entrenched racial inequities in employment, education, health care, criminal justice, housing and elsewhere-and the studies indicating these are due in large measure to discrimination, either past, present, or a combination of the two-it most definitely does not suggest that racism has been truncated as an ongoing social problem for persons of color generally.

Though Obama's victory falls well short of proving that racism has been vanquished in America, for reasons I will explore shortly, it is still worth noting some of the positive aspects of the Obama victory when it comes to race. For although I will insist that his rise says far less than many would suggest, we would do well to at least note a few of the beneficial outcomes, so we know what we have to build on in the future.

First, Obama's election to the presidency demonstrates that old-fashioned racism (or what I call in this volume Racism 1.0), though still far too prevalent in the nation, is capable of being defeated, especially when an effective coalition is put together, and when those who otherwise might fall back into patterns of bias and discrimination can be convinced that their interests (economic, for instance) should outweigh their tendency to act on the basis of skin color. Given the harrowing state of the American economy as voters went to the polls in November, and given the Obama campaign's message that his opponent would only provide tax relief to the wealthiest Americans while largely continuing the economic policies of the Bush administration, many voters (including white working-class voters who had been turning against Democrats for a generation) turned to Obama. Even if they harbored ongoing prejudices toward African Americans generally (and evidence suggests that many still did), they were prepared to vote their pocketbooks and break with a long tradition, stretching back decades, whereby so many of them had ignored economic interests for the sake of apparent "racial bonding," against communities of color.

Especially heartening was the fact that part of the strategy for gaining the support of white working-class voters was to directly confront them on their racism when it was expressed, rather than finessing it. Labor leader Richard Trumka, for instance, as well as other labor organizers and Obama's own campaign in Ohio developed strategies for taking on white racism directly, rather than trying to sidestep it, in the hopes that voters would simply do the right thing for economic reasons alone. By calling out white racism and forcing white working folks to think about the irrationality of racial bonding-especially in the face of an economic free fall-these organizers planted the seeds of potential cross-racial alliance, which, if tended carefully, could bear fruit in the future.

Secondly, and on a related note, the level of cross-racial collaboration (especially among youth) that made Obama's victory possible was something rarely seen in American politics, or history. Although many, including myself, would rather see such mobilizing take place in arenas other than mainstream electoral politics, the fact is, efforts of this nature have to start somewhere. For young people who forged real and meaningful movement relationships in the Obama campaign, the possibility that they may continue to engage in grassroots organizing in years to come-and much of it around issues of racial justice-cannot be ignored. Long-term sustained activism is always more likely for those who have formed those genuine relationships and worked together for a common purpose, as so many young blacks, whites, Latinos and Asian Americans did in this election cycle. Likewise, that so many of the Obama campaigners witnessed racism up close and personal-either while canvassing or making phone calls for the campaign-can only have served to heighten these folks' sensitivity to the problem of racism in America. So although the average white person may view Obama's win as evidence of the death of racism (more on this below), those who worked on his behalf will have a hard time coming to that conclusion, having seen and heard so much raw and unexpurgated bigotry on the campaign trail.

Finally, Obama's win indicates that when a person of color has the opportunity to make his case day after day, for at least a year and a half (and really more, since Obama had been introduced to the public four years earlier during the 2004 Democratic National Convention), he is fully capable of demonstrating to the satisfaction of millions of whites (if still, not most), his intelligence, wisdom, and leadership capabilities, sufficiently to win the job for which he is in effect, interviewing. So far so good.

But the bad news, and let us not forget it, is that most job interviews don't last for eighteen months, and don't involve millions of decision-makers, where at least in theory the biases of some can be canceled out by the open-mindedness of others. Rather, most job-seekers are facing a mere handful of evaluators, often only one, and if there is any significant bias in the heart or mind of that person (or if that person adheres, even subconsciously, to negative stereotypes about folks of color), the job applicant who is black or brown faces an uphill climb that Obama's success cannot erase or transform. Likewise, most persons of color don't have the luxury of whipping out their memoir when applying for a mortgage loan, while searching for an apartment, or when they are stopped by a police officer on suspicion of illegal activity and saying, "Here, read this; it'll show you what a great guy I am." Most folks of color face far less deliberative snap judgments on the part of employers, landlords, teachers, and cops, and in those instances, the ability of racial bias to taint the process of evaluation is of no small concern.

So, rather than ask what Obama's success means in terms of race and racism in the United States in the twenty-first century, the better question may be what doesn't his success mean for those things? What does it not tell us about how far we've come, and how far we still have to go?

As for the second of the two most often asked questions, while many whites may well not have been prepared to vote for a black-or as some may prefer, biracial-man for the presidency, there is another issue almost completely overlooked by the press: the possibility that Obama might well have won the nation's highest office in spite of ongoing traditional white racism, and yet because of a newer, slicker Racism 2.0, in which whites hold the larger black community in low regard and adhere, for instance, to any number of racist stereotypes about African Americans-and yet carve out acceptable space for individuals such as Obama who strike them as different, as exceptions who are not like the rest. That this "enlightened exceptionalism" manages to accommodate individual people of color, even as it continues to look down upon the larger mass of black and brown America with suspicion, fear, and contempt, suggests the fluid and shape-shifting nature of racism. It indicates that far from vanishing, racism has become more sophisticated and that Obama's rise could, at least in part, stem from the triumph of racism, albeit of a more seemingly ecumenical type than that to which we have grown accustomed.

If some whites are willing to vote for a person of color, but only to the extent they are able to view that person as racially unthreatening, as different from "regular" black people, as somehow less than truly black, or as having "transcended race" (a term used with regularity to describe Obama over the past few years), then white racism remains quite real, quite powerful, and quite operative in the life of the nation. More than that, even in the case of the electoral success of a man of color, it might well have remained central to the outcome. The only question, really, was which kind of racism was likely to show up most prominently on election day? Would it be the traditional old-fashioned kind, rooted in conscious bigotry and hate, the Racism 1.0, which historically has caused many whites to act toward black folks with suspicion, violence, distrust, fear, and anxiety, and which-if it is prevalent enough-could have resulted in Obama's defeat? Or would it be the newer, slicker, enlightened exceptionalism, or Racism 2.0, which still holds the larger black and brown communities of our nation in low regard but is willing to carve out exceptions for those who make some whites sufficiently comfortable? We now have our answer to that question, if we're willing to examine it. But one thing about which we should be clear as we conduct that examination is this: the election of Barack Obama was not the result of a national evolution to a truly antiracist consciousness or institutional praxis. And this we know for reasons we shall now explore.


That white folks would find it tempting, in light of Obama's mass appeal and his ascent to the presidency, to declare the struggle against racism over should surprise no one. As we'll see below, even when the system of racism and white supremacy was more firmly entrenched, white folks by and large failed to see what all the fuss was about. So needless to say, with Barack Obama now in the nation's top political position, it is to be expected that once again white America would point to such a thing as firm confirmation that all was right with the world. Indeed, the day after Obama's victory, the Wall Street Journal editorial page intoned: "One promise of his victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country."

In fact, even before Obama had been declared the winner of the election, proclamations of racism's early death were becoming ubiquitous. And so, ten days before the vote, columnist Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, declared that concerns about white racism possibly sinking Obama's ship were so obviously absurd as to indicate evidence of "prevailing antiwhite bias" on the part of the media types who continually raised the subject. He went on to explain that white America's distrust of blacks "crumbles when they actually get to know specific black people." Though Rich's point about the willingness of whites to open up to individual blacks once they become familiar with them may be true for many, he, like most commentators, ignores the fact that most black folks will not get the chance to be known in this way by the average white person. As such, to proclaim a phenomenon observable in the presidential race (whites, getting to know Obama and choosing him in the voting booth) as common or likely to obtain in everyday situations and encounters seems a bit far-fetched.

Then there was columnist Richard Cohen, who said in the Washington Post on the morning of the election, "It is not just that he (Obama) is post-racial; so is the nation he is generationally primed to lead," and then closed his piece by suggesting, in a bizarre appropriation of civil rights movement language, "we have overcome."

On a personal note, about a week before the election I received an e-mail from a young white man who proclaimed his desire for Obama to win so that the nation would finally be able to "stop talking about racism, and move on to more important subjects," and so that "blacks would have to stop whining about discrimination, and focus on pulling themselves up by their bootstraps instead."

On election eve, before Obama had accumulated enough electoral votes to be proclaimed the winner, former New York City mayor (and Republican presidential candidate) Rudy Giuliani had made clear what an Obama victory would mean for the nation. Speaking of what appeared at that moment to be a sure Obama win, Giuliani noted that if the trend at that point in the evening held up, "we've achieved history tonight and we've moved beyond ... the whole idea of race and racial separation and unfairness." Interestingly, not only did none of the other commentators challenge Giuliani's formulation, but they also failed to note the obvious irony of his comment. Namely, if an Obama win by necessity would indicate the veritable death of racism in the United States, then would an Obama loss have suggested deeply entrenched bigotry in the eyes of Giuliani and others making the same argument? Had McCain won, could we have expected these prophets of achieved color blindness to condemn their fellow voters for being so obviously racist as to vote against a black man? After all, if voting for Obama means people have put away racism, by definition, voting against him would have to mean they had not, right? Actually no, of course, but such a conclusion is where arguments like that of Giuliani necessarily lead.

In truth, such a proposition (that the victory of one person of color signifies a victory over racism aimed at nearly 90 million) is very nearly the definition of lunacy. And note, it is the kind of proposition one would never make regarding sexism in a place like Pakistan, just because Benazir Bhutto was twice elected prime minister of the place; or in India, Israel, or Great Britain, by virtue of all three having elected women as the heads of their respective states. Surely, had Hillary Clinton captured the nomination of her party and gone on to win in November, no one with even a scintilla of common sense would have argued that a result such as this signaled the obvious demise of sexism in the United States. But that is essentially what so many would have us believe to be true of racism, thanks to the national effort that elected Barack Obama.


Excerpted from BETWEEN BARACK AND A HARD PLACE by Tim Wise Copyright © 2009 by Tim Wise. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.