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:

 

Speakers
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

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

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