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Obama's Election Clearly Doesn't Mark the Beginning of a 'Post-Racial' Society

Barack Obama navigates a world where color still matters.

With the nation’s first black president in the White House, some pundits have started employing the narrative of a “post-racial” America to frame events. In this view, Barack Obama’s election has leveled the playing field and obviated the struggle for racial equality. In many ways Obama has played along, scrupulously avoiding comment on racial matters since he began his presidential campaign.

Yet racism persists in the Obama-era, the supposedly post-racial world. According to culture critic and author Henry Giroux, this racism is different from the historical “crude racism with its biological referents and pseudo-scientific legitimations.” Instead, he writes, this new breed of racism “cynically recodes itself within the vocabulary of the civil rights movement, invoking the language of Martin Luther King Jr., to argue that individuals should be judged by the ‘content of their character’ and not by the color of their skin.”

Obama was atypically unequivocal in July when he criticized the Cambridge, Mass., police for “acting stupidly” in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard University. He also raised a few eyebrows by linking the Gates arrest to the historical problem of racial profiling.

In the Gates incident, the esteemed Harvard professor was mistaken for a burglar at his own home and later arrested for “disorderly conduct” for reportedly berating Sgt. James Crowley, the officer called to investigate.

Details were still sketchy at the time of Obama’s comments, and his unexpected response to the question sparked a torrent of criticism from right-wingers who were predictably eager to express their law-and-order bona fides. It also gave them fuel to inflame the kind of racial biases that tend to improve their electoral fortunes. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” lives on.

Rush Limbaugh said Obama’s comments were a case of “a black president trying to destroy a white policeman.” Fox News’ Glenn Beck accused the president of being racist, saying Obama’s words revealed a “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

The president also angered some supporters, who thought his comments were inappropriate and distracting. “I thought I was in the Twilight Zone when I heard him make those comments at the press conference,” says Boyce Watkins, a professor of finance at Syracuse University and a media pundit. “I thought his remarks were irresponsible.”

Watkins objected because he thought Gates was an inappropriate symbol for racial profiling. A well-respected Harvard professor gets the press, he said, “while millions of poor black men who get no coverage are being victimized by the criminal justice system.”

Many wondered why a president whose campaign discipline was legendary would make such a startling strategic mistake.

The answer likely lies in Obama’s attempts to rectify what he considers an unbalanced depiction of his position on racial issues. He seems frustrated by criticism of his posture of racial neutrality, and hinted as much when he complained to the Washington Post ’s Eugene Robinson about coverage of his July 16 NAACP speech. “I’ve noticed that when I talk about personal responsibility in the African-American community, that gets highlighted,” he said. “But then the whole other half of the speech, where I talked about government’s responsibility … that somehow doesn’t make news.”

Obama was speaking of the media’s predilection for talking about race in post-racial terms, though it’s a tendency he’s guilty of too. During his campaign, most of his advisors urged him to avoid the issue as too risky. Except for his excellent speech in Philadelphia—in which he contextualized the kind of black anger expressed by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, even while condemning it—his campaign followed that advice and remained was race-averse.

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