The post-racial illusion: racial politics and inequality in the age of Obama

The post-racial illusion: racial politics and inequality in the age of Obama

Revue de Recherche en Civilisation Américaine
Number 3 (March 2012): Post-racial America?

Olivier Richomme
l’université de Lyon II-Lumière


  • 1. The 2008 election as an exception
    • a-The circumstances
    • b-A post-racial election?
  • 2. The state of the racial divide
    • a-Economic well-being
    • b-Health
    • c-Housing
    • d-Education
    • e-Incarceration
  • 3. Racial politics today
    • a-The persistence and evolution of the color-line
    • b-The future of identity politics

As Americans celebrated the much anticipated inauguration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington D.C. a few months ago, one could not help but raise questions about the state of race relations in the United States. How much did race matter 45 years after this great civil rights leader gave his most famous speech in the capital? Many commentators wondered if the election of Barack Obama and the overall evolution of the country indicated that the United States might be entering a new era in which race inequalities had been reduced to the point that they might no longer be such a spurious issue (Taeku Lee 2001). In other words, the election of first non-white president and the inauguration of the statue of the first African-American on the National Mall could be the symbols of a new era of post-racialism in America.

It cannot be denied that a sentiment of post-racial achievement spread throughout the United States during the 2008 presidential election and lasted until the inauguration. For many Americans, casting their ballots for this atypical candidate was proof that the United States had moved beyond race and overcome its racist past. Obama’s message of hope meant the hope of a less racialized future. Such promise added a historical dimension to every ballot. However intoxicating this feeling was, it was short lived. Some time after the inauguration, political behaviors went back to normal, culminating in the 2010 mid-term elections that were as violent and as racially loaded as ever1. Racial politics did not change overnight. In that regard Obama’s election was an exception, an anomaly. America voted for a very special candidate under a very particular set of circumstances. We may not see the stars aligned in this way for a long time as we will attempt to show in this article.

We believe that, in spite of Obama’s historical election, in the United States race is, to use Bob Blauner’s expression (2001), “still the big news”. Every socio-economic indicator, every demographic study, every political study shows that wealth, poverty, education, spatial segregation, rates of incarceration, voting patterns are correlated to race. America is still the ideological battlefield of two institutional racial orders competing for power (King and Smith, 2005). The claims of post-racialism developed by the conservatives in order to dismantle race-conscious public policies such as busing, affirmative action or even redistricting cannot sustain the avalanche of data and studies showing how racial disparities and racial material inequality still plague American society. Furthermore, it seems that anti-discrimination policies are the only form of government intervention that the American public is not ready to do away with. This is because the American people know that, in spite of some improvement and some encouraging signs, their daily lives are still marked by racial divides. Communities and identities are still defined by these racial fault lines…

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