Obama and Myths of Racial Democracy

Obama and Myths of Racial Democracy

NACLA Report
North American Congress on Latin America

Marisol LeBrón

Political pundits have celebrated president-elect Barack Obama’s sweeping and historic victory as evidence that the United States has taken an initial step toward a “post-racial” or “colorblind” society.

In a recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Shelby Steele provocatively asked, “Doesn’t a black in the Oval Office put the lie to both black inferiority and white racism? Doesn’t it imply a ‘post-racial’ America?” Analysts on both sides of the political spectrum have answered yes. Phillip Morris of the Cleveland Plains Dealer declared, “America has completed its evolution into a racial meritocracy.” While Jonathan Kay of Canada’s National Post wrote, “Electing a black president won’t instantly cure ‘the ugly racial wound left by America’s history’ (as The Economist put it in its Obama endorsement). But it will at least prove that America has finally become a fundamentally post-racial society—a place where tribal loyalties are based on ideology, not skin color.” Meanwhile, another conservative columnist, Laura Hollis of Townhall.com, flatly claimed, “Racism is dead.”…

…U.S. commentators most often point to the concept of mestizaje as an example of Latin America’s seamless racial integration. Mestizaje, or racial mixing, is often seen as diametrically different to historical U.S. legal sanctions against miscegenation—the so-called “one-drop” rule. Mestizaje is cited as a prime example of how Latin Americans have been able to move beyond race. Although mestizaje has different historical roots and trajectories within different Latin American countries, there has been a rhetorical emphasis across the board on a kind harmonious racial exceptionalism at work in Latin America…

…The promotion of mestizaje and racial democracy in Latin America has often existed alongside, and as part of, the suppression of populations of African and indigenous descent. National identities based on mestizaje served the dual purpose of “uniting” fractious nations under one banner while at the same time promoting the mass marginalization of racial and ethnic groups by denying their discrimination.

Several scholars have helped dispel the myth of racial democracy in Latin America by documenting what is often referred to as blanqueamiento (whitening), or mejorando la raza (improving the race). In one example, blanqueamiento is actively sought out by marrying a lighter-skinned person, thereby producing lighter, racially mixed offspring. Sociologist Ginetta E. B. Candelario has traced the many ways blanqueamiento is promoted in Dominican society. As evidence, she points to the range of skin creams and hair products marketed to produce a whiter-looking phenotype among Dominican women

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