The Color of Obama

The ghosts of racism’s past, legally buried, are reappearing in the United States during the final stages of a presidency, that of the first president of color to occupy the White House. Right when Obama has just celebrated the historical crossing 50 years ago of the Selma Bridge in Alabama, in the Deep South, which triggered the restoration of civil rights and the dismantlement of segregation of “Negroes” in schools, bus stations, public lavatories. This was their only, derogatory name. Second class citizens, they were still being lynched by white fanatics, their houses and churches burned.

Today, the United States attorney general is African-American and the Department of Justice which he directs has just published a report saying that the police in Ferguson, along with the local judiciary, are biased against the black population. Ferguson is the city where last summer Michael Brown, an 18-year-old young black man, was shot down by a white police officer who was later declared innocent by a majority-white jury.

The police chief and the municipal judge in Ferguson have stepped down. On Wednesday, two police officers were shot opposite the police station. Obama, whose own race have never considered him black enough, and was therefore liked by the white electorate, played the racial question with skill and good sense, during both his election campaign and later in the White House. Has his presidency improved the fortunes of citizens of color? Yes, regarding the discourse that “there is not a Black America and a White America … there’s the United States of America.”

Not so much regarding the equality objective. We can talk now about racial inequality after racism; as Foreign Affairs’ latest issue describes, the U.S. today may be a post-racist society but it is still not a post-racial one. “This nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” recognized Obama in Selma.

Rosa Parks sat in a seat for whites on a bus in Montgomery so that Martin Luther King Jr. could have a dream, that his four children might not be judged in the future for the color of their skin, and so that Barack Obama might get to the White House. But the “yes we can” was not that simple. Why does there continue to be such huge mistrust between the community of color and the forces of order? Why, if you are black, are you much more likely to become a crime victim? Black people are three times more likely than white to be poor, and six times more likely to go to prison.

A declining white majority denying racist intentions before a black minority is an uncomfortable reality which persists. The role of race is more subtle than before but no less powerful. Racism continues without racists, the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla affirms. Still, theoretically neutral institutions produce racially unequal results. The U.S. is not a society blind before color. It has not completely crossed the bridge. The march is not yet over.

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