Obama's America: is racism history?

Saturday 30 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Café

At the start of the American Civil War, more than four million African-Americans were living in slavery. Now, nearly 150 years later, an African-American has become president of that same nation. So is racism in America a thing of the past, or at least no longer the society-defining ill it once was?

Obama’s presidency is notable as much for the fact that his election campaign did not prominently feature the race issue as for as the fact that he is African-American. Some even argued that part of his appeal to liberal white voters was the sense that he gave them the right to move on and stop feeling guilty about the legacy of slavery and oppression. Whereas older black politicians like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton used to invoke the spirit of the Civil Rights era, Obama seemed to embody the achievements of those past struggles rather than seeking to relive them, and thus offered hope for all Americans in the future. This approach resonated with popular weariness with the politics of identity and political correctness. So on face value, and certainly from this side of the Atlantic, the US race question seems resolved.

How much has American society really changed? Despite workplaces becoming more integrated, segregation in churches, schools, and neighbourhoods has persisted. Furthermore, while poverty in black households has been substantially reduced in the past 40 years, deprivation is still a serious problem, and the number of black males incarcerated is disproportionately high. Moreover race in America is not just about black and white, but also prejudice and discrimination against other minorities, especially Hispanics, as well as tensions between different ethnic groups. Many issues in the US, from crime to class, are still viewed through the prism of race. Some even see a racist backlash in some of the more aggressive criticisms of Obama’s presidency, but is this charge of racism more a reflection of elite disdain for embittered whites in the so called ‘red states’?

Does the election of President Obama herald the dawn of a new era, or simply provide an excuse to overlook continued injustice? Is it just a matter of time, or is something else holding black Americans back from the American dream? Have the old prejudices melted away or are they re-emerging in a different form? For example, does the ongoing controversy over immigration, the ongoing attempt to bring in tough new legislation in Arizona which requires suspected illegal immigrants to prove their status on demand, point to a new form of racial politics? Are Arizonans old-fashioned bigots as claimed by nation-wide human rights protests? The controversy certainly begs the question, as America undergoes dramatic demographic changes, can we expect the race question to loom ever larger rather than fading into the past?

Listen to session audio:


Fredrick C. Harris
professor of political science, Columbia University; author, Price of the Ticket: the rise and decline of black politics in the age of Obama (forthcoming)

Dr Cheryl Hudson
lecturer in American history, University of Liverpool

Andrew Wroe
lecturer in United States politics, University of Kent, Canterbury; author, The Republican Party and Immigration Politics and Assessing the Bush Presidency

Jean Smith
specialist development consultant; co-founder and director, NY Salon

Produced by
Jean Smith specialist development consultant; co-founder and director, NY Salon
Recommended readings
From the N-Word to Code Words

The evolution of the race card in American politics.

Christopher Hitchens, Slate, 20 September 2010

Illegal workers pack their bags as Arizona prepares for ‘the law’

In four weeks, Arizona will become the first state in America to criminalise the presence of illegal immigrants and Miguel is not waiting.

Catherine Philp, The Times, 2 July 2010

How Race Survived US History

Taking his history through the Clinton era ('How Race Survived Modern Liberalism'), Roediger includes an afterword on "the Obama Phenomenon," finding yet more questions in the African-American senator's triumphant presidential campaign. This rousing, thought-provoking history illuminates the enveloping 400-year-old history of race in America, and the issues he raises are as relevant as ever.

David R. Roediger, Verso, 1 February 2010

More Than Just Race: being black and poor in the inner city

William Julius Wilson applies a new analytic framework to three politically fraught social problems: the persistence of the inner city ghetto, the plight of low-skilled black males and the fragmentation of the African American family. Though the discussion of racial inequality is typically polarised, Wilson reaches the controversial conclusion that structural and cultural forces are inextricably linked and that public policy can change the status quo only by reforming the institutions that reinforce it.

WJ Wilson, W. W. Norton & Co, 13 March 2009

Survey on Race, Politics, and Society

The Center for African-American Politics and Society (CAAPS) and ABC News's

Richard C. Harris, Center on African American Politics and Society, 2 September 2008

The Republican Party and Immigration Politics: From Proposition 187 to George W. Bush

This book examines the 1990s backlash against illegal immigrants. Wroe explains why many Americans turned against immigration, looking at the origins of California's Proposition 187 and its wider political implications.

Andrew Roe, Palgrave Macmillan, 25 April 2008

Race, Reform and the 2008 Presidential Nomination Process

The Center for African American Politics and Society presents the results of the first ever survey exploring racial attitudes toward the presidential nomination process. The study examines racial differences in opinions on the current system of selecting presidential nominees and gauges attitudes on whether the current process should be reformed.

Richard C. Harris, Center on African American Politics and Society, 2 January 2008

The Trouble With Diversity

Two great liberal preoccupations -- our celebration of cultural difference and the fight against inequality -- go hand in hand, right? Wrong. Incredibly wrong.

Walter Benn Michaels, The American Prospect, 14 August 2006

Session partners