A few days ago in a Fox News segment called “Post-Racial President Keeps Dividing America,” Judge Jeanine said “Americans, once hopeful that after electing the first African-American president the issue of race would be a thing of the past, are left with Barack Obama, who stokes the flames of racial hatred, resentment and divisiveness.”
Obama’s supporters may not be using “post-racial” as a weapon to upbraid him, but they’re still expressing disappointment that we are not further along in moving past racism. The journalist Jorge Ramos recently told the President how the recent police killings of black males show “we don’t live in a post-racial society as many expected when you were elected.”
Obama interrupted to clarify that he never expected this immediate outcome, explaining, “It’s usually not a single moment when suddenly everything gets solved. It’s a process.”
In the wake of Ferguson, Eric Garner, and growing national protests, people keep bemoaning the failure of President Obama to move us to a post-racial society. We still hold him to the vision he articulated in his 2004 convention speech of what unites us in America, and the possibility of triumph over racial and other divisions. “Post-racial” gained hopeful momentum in the press during his presidential campaign, as Obama seemed comfortable in all worlds, thanks to his multicultural upbringing and mixed racial identity.
For the president’s part, our becoming post-racial was never something he claimed he could deliver for us, and certainly not in a term or two. His own optimistic rhetoric expressed the endurance of America’s long struggle against prejudice, but when asked about the notion of his election moving us into a post-racial age, he said in Rolling Stone, “I never bought into the notion that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a post-racial period.” He added, “What happens in the workplace, in schools, on sports fields, and through music and culture shapes racial attitudes as much as any legislation that’s passed. I do believe that we’re making slow and steady progress.”
That some now hold him responsible for a lack of a racial utopia is actually another indication of how long such an advance will take. No other president has been expected the bear the weight of changing us so radically. As many have pointed out, electing a black president does not make us post-racial—in fact, it has served to bring to the surface long-simmering elements of the American soul.
How else can we explain the furious reactions, like Judge Jeanine’s, to any attempt by Obama to talk about racially charged incidents? And how else to explain the disdain and dismay of liberals who want Obama to heal us solely by his words?
To accuse the president of failing to move us past racism is like blaming our doctor when we don’t lose weight—though you made no effort to change our unhealthy habits.
It is, of course, easier to blame Obama than to confront the resentments and fears in our own minds. Even beyond the evident imbalance in our justice system, studies clearly show educational and economic gaps separate us racially in terms of opportunity and the persistence of racial discrimination. Saying it is Obama’s failure to make us post-racial is skirting our own responsibility to scrutinize ourselves.
Still, the current frustrations and anger, in fact, show us how far we have come. Extraordinary times of change are often followed by counter-movements pushing against what has been achieved. After the Civil War, William Lloyd Garrison declared victory and disbanded his antislavery organization, against Frederick Douglass’ urging. A decade and a half later, as the promise of Reconstruction morphed into the horror of Jim Crow, Garrison concluded, “It is clear, therefore, that the battle of liberty and equal rights is to be fought over again.” However crushing this must have been, people like Douglass did not shrink from that struggle; Douglass continued it relentlessly until his death, taking on lynching alongside younger activists like Ida B. Wells.
If we interpret post-racial as post-racism, as a time where racial prejudice and its systemic manifestations no longer hurt people’s lives, it remains a goal worth striving for. Fatalism over whether or not it’s possible to achieve given the human brain’s tendency towards group identification is like asking if we will ever be free of sin: everyday we are still trying to be better. Believing that Obama’s election made us somehow free of racism’s effects is an attempt to take a shortcut on the longest, hardest journey in American life. Obama’s election was a huge step forward towards defeating racism, but it was nowhere near the finish line. The responsibility to get there is not his—it is ours.
Paul Kendrick is the coauthor of “Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union” and “Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle For Equality Changed America.”